North Dakota Starts Draining Lake into Canada
WINNIPEG, Manitoba Despite Canadian fears of contamination, North Dakota began pumping water Monday from its Devils Lake floodlands into a system that leads eventually into a commercial fishery north of the U.S. border.
The U.S. diversion plan has been a diplomatic sore point because of Canadian concerns the water could pollute Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg, the world's 10th largest freshwater lake and home to a C$25 million ($21 million) fishery.
North Dakota says the water from Devils Lake, which has swallowed up 90,000 acres of land over 12 years of higher than normal precipitation, is safe. But Canada fears the land-locked lake contains high concentrations of salts and other pollutants along with foreign fish and organisms.
The system diverts water through a canal into the Sheyenne River, which drains into the Red River, which empties into Lake Winnipeg.
Canada and the United States reached an agreement earlier this month on several modifications to prevent harm to the Canadian lake. But some critics in Canada were not appeased.
"We did our little modifications on a few things, so we're back in the operations mode," said Dale Frink, North Dakota's state water engineer.
"We'll run (the outlet) on and off until Nov. 1," Frink told Reuters.
The Manitoba and Canadian governments had pushed for a review of the Devils Lake project by the International Joint Commission, an independent binational agency set up to resolve cross-border water disputes.
But North Dakota said the review would take too long, and governments had already spent more than $400 million moving homes and building and repairing roads and bridges because of the flooding.
The Bush administration declined to refer the project to the commission, and pushed for the agreement that saw North Dakota add more rocks and gravel to its drain to keep fish and other organisms from leaving Devils Lake.
Scientists from both countries are studying water quality, and U.S. and Canadian governments will design and construct a more advanced filter system based on the studies.
So far, biologists have not found any invasive species such as zebra mussels in the lake, but they are still waiting on results on fish viruses and parasites, as well as other organisms, said Dwight Williamson, manager of water quality at Manitoba's water stewardship department.
"Clearly, our preference would have been for all of these results to be in prior to operation," Williamson said.
Frink said the state will drain up to 50 cubic feet of water per second from the lake this autumn, half the rate that is allowed under a state health department permit.
"Hopefully the lake will drop some between now and November, but we'll have to see," he said.
He said the system could drain up to 4 inches of water if run at its maximum rate from April until November.
Joe Belford, commissioner of North Dakota's flood-damaged Ramsey County, who led the charge to drain the lake, said he felt relieved to see the project up and running Monday.
"It's great that we've got it moving," Belford said. "It's been a long, long time and a major process."
But he said the political fight about the diversion system will continue, focusing on additional filtration for the water.
"I'm sure there's going to be a lot of going back and forth on who's going to pay," Belford said.