April 25, 2005

Doer heads delegation seeking IJC reference for Devils Lake project

Manitoba Premier Gary Doer and an international coalition recently met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega in Washington DC to urge American authorities to refer North Dakota's Devils Lake outlet project to the International Joint Commission (IJC).

The delegation called on senior U.S. officials to follow through on a commitment made by Prime Minister Paul Martin, U.S. President George W Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox during their meeting in Texas in late March, when the three national leaders pledged to enhance water quality in North America by working bilaterally, trilaterally and through existing boundary treaties and the IJC.

"Our delegation is here to demonstrate that the issue is bigger than just Manitoba and North Dakota. The future implications of allowing one state or one province to proceed unilaterally to impact transboundary waters are of significant concern to other North American jurisdictions and First Nations leaders. A reference to the IJC would ensure decisions are made on the basis of shared environmental stewardship, not politics. The IJC is independent, thorough and objective," Doer stated.

Along with the Manitoba premier, the delegation included the province's Water Stewardship Minister, Steve Ashton; Reg Alcock, president of the Treasury Board of Canada and minister responsible for the Canadian Wheat Board; Minnesota representative Thomas Huntley, who is also chair of the Great Lakes Commission; Canadian ambassador to the U.S. Frank McKenna; Ontario Natural Resources Minister David Ramsay; Quebec Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks Minister Thomas Mulcair; and Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

Current flood forecasts predict there is no risk of a flood crisis this year. As of April 1, Devils Lake was 1,448 feet above sea level or one foot below last year's levels with below normal snowfall this winter in the basin. The U.S. National Weather Service is forecasting a peak for 2005 of about 1,449 feet, the same level as last year. "As there is no flood threat to the area this year, there is time for the IJC to do its work," said Doer, who further noted that time is of the essence as the outlet is about 80% complete and water from Devils Lake could begin to flow into Lake Winnipeg as early as this summer.

Devils Lake contains no natural outlets or inlets, and has been isolated from the Hudson Bay drainage basin for about 1,000 years. This long period of isolation, together with the closed nature of the lake has altered the water quality, making it vastly different from the downstream waters of the Red River, Sheyenne River and Lake Winnipeg. In order to manage fluctuating water levels in the basin, the North Dakota government has proceeded to construct an outlet which will discharge water from Devils Lake into the Red River system when lake levels are high.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously studied the situation in North Dakota but acknowledged that the biota of Devils Lake has been poorly researched and the impact on Canada has not been studied at all. It is known that there are two fish parasites found in Devils Lake which are not present in Manitoba.

Great Lakes Commission chair Huntley has written to the secretary of state on behalf of all the Commission members, saying, "We are concerned that the process to date has not respected the authority of the International Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and, consequently, has threatened to compromise U.S.-Canada relations on a matter of great interest to both nations." The Great Lakes Commission is made up of representatives from the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

"The position of the United States, that damage must occur before a violation of the Treaty can be determined, is contrary to U.S. and Canadian environment policy and international practice," said Alcock, adding, "The Government of Canada strongly urges the U.S. to stop construction of the outlet until both governments have had the opportunity to review the recommendations of a joint reference to the International Joint Commission."

"The International Joint Commission has a very effective track record in addressing transboundary water concerns on both sides of the border. Through their expertise, we have greatly improved water quality in the Great Lakes, which is to the mutual benefit of Canada and the United States," said Ramsay. "Ontario concurs that this project must be referred to the IJC." Quebec's Mulcair reinforced this view, calling for an IJC review of the project "to achieve a mutually agreeable resolution to this precedent-setting issue."

"For thousands of years, our people have fished the lakes and rivers as an important source of food and economic activity. First Nations have Aboriginal and treaty rights, recognized and affirmed in the Canadian Constitution and international treaties, which must be taken into account and accommodated by governments. Together, we strongly urge the U.S. government not to make a unilateral decision that could prove to have devastating effects on First Nation people and our communities in the region," said Fontaine.

Doer has indicated that Manitoba is prepared to accept the IJC's recommendations on the North Dakota outlet project.

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