Manitoban Doer stresses ‘collaboration’ while pressing Canada’s case on water
WASHINGTON – Ask Gary Doer about water issues between the United States and Canada and he quickly ticks off eight, east to west across the continent.
Ask a formula for dealing with them and Doer gives a three-word answer: “Collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration.”
Probe a little and Doer’s responses become more nuanced. And a little tougher.
Part of this is a change in Doer’s role.
As premier of Manitoba for 10 years ending in 2009, Doer was a politician.
As Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Doer is a diplomat.
Part of it is due to shared emergency from flooding. “This year was unusual for both of us,” Doer said. “It’s hard to negotiate when you’re in water up over your waders.”
Part of it is due to changed circumstances.
Doer elaborated on these and Canadian government reactions to them in a wide-ranging interview. The interview took place on Feb. 13 in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., within sight of the U.S. Capitol.
Take Devils Lake for example.
As premier of the province, Doer took a hard line. Indeed, a 2005 memo from the U.S. State Department – one of the notorious WikiLeaks – warned of “a collision course” between the countries and blamed Doer’s “intransigence.”
The ambassador refused to comment on the memo, other than to say, “Not all the WikiLeaks were true” and this one “didn’t come from anyone I ever dealt with.”
Still, Doer was widely regarded as stubborn about Devils Lake, and American politicians sometimes accused him of political opportunism.
Since Doer left Winnipeg, Canadian rhetoric on Devils Lake has softened.
Doer’s explanation is that circumstances changed.
A scientific review established that there was only minimal risk that non-native species would reach Lake Winnipeg from Devils Lake. This helped spur four-party talks between North Dakota, the U.S. government, Manitoba and the Canadian government that allowed progress in managing the rise of Devils Lake.
At the same time, concern about sulfate levels in the lake proved less pressing – and more susceptible to what Doer called “a basinwide solution.”
Science, he said, helped Canada accept a Devils Lake outlet. One is operational. A second is under construction.
So did a change in North Dakota’s approach to the lake. The idea of bringing water from the Missouri River to help stabilize the level of the lake was abandoned. With it went the fear that species from the Missouri could get into Lake Winnipeg through a Devils Lake outlet.
Lake Winnipeg has been a focus of Canadian concern about U.S. water projects.
Lake of the Woods
Concern for Lake Winnipeg prompted a reference to the International Joint Commission, established by a 1909 treaty to manage cross-boundary waters. This involves Lake of the Woods, which straddles the border between Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario.
The IJC is mapping sources of phosphorus entering Lake of the Woods, which drains into Lake Winnipeg through the Winnipeg River. The idea is that each country will take steps to reduce its contribution to phosphorus levels in the lake.
Nitrogen sources are being mapped, as well, though nitrogen is a lesser concern, at least given current scientific knowledge.
Phosphorus is a leading cause of algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg. These reduce the lake’s appeal for recreationists and deplete the oxygen that sustains fish in the lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It’s known in Canada as “the sixth Great Lake.”
Doer conceded that Canadian cities, especially Winnipeg, are major sources of phosphorous entering the lake,
A major effort – costing billions of dollars, Doer said – has been mounted to treat water. New treatment plants have been completed at Brandon and Portage la Prairie, Man. Winnipeg has recently brought the first of three treatment plants on line, a second is near completion.
Managing phosphorus entering Lake Winnipeg is an element in managing reservoirs on tributaries of the Red River as well. This is of consequence in North Dakota because at least two of these reservoirs were built to control flooding in Minot. These are Rafferty and Alameda reservoirs on the Souris River in southern Saskatchewan.
Last week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple met with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to discuss drawing down the Canadian reservoirs in advance of spring runoff, thus providing more storage for flood control.
The bonus would be collecting water that could flush into Lake Winnipeg later in the season, a tactic that could help dilute phosphorus runoff into Lake Winnipeg.
Doer’s office isn’t involved in talks between Saskatchewan and North Dakota but is monitoring them, he said.
He praised the meeting, held in Regina, Sask., as an example of “collaboration.”
Doer also suggested that “collaboration” might resolve another border irritant, an embankment along the border that Canadian officials refer to as a road and U.S. officials believe functions as a dike.
His government installed culverts that allow some water to pass through the embankment.
He insisted, however, that the flooding on the U.S. side of the border isn’t due entirely to the embankment. Instead, he said, water coming from the west arrives faster than it should under natural conditions – and slowing it down will help relieve flooding.
That will require concession south of the border.
Elements of policy
As background to all of these issues, Doer emphasized Canada’s concern about moving water from one drainage basin to another – a key element of Canadian opposition to the Garrison Diversion program of the 1980s and of its concern about possible use of Missouri River water in the cities of the Red River Valley, including Fargo and Grand Forks.
To press his point, Doer talked about Asian carp, an introduced species present in the Mississippi watershed. The fear is that the fish could invade the Great Lakes. To avoid this, Canada is pressing for controls on U.S. rivers, including electrical fences and impoundments preventing overland flooding that could breach the divide between drainage basins, including electric fences.
Doer returned to this point, and this example, several times in the hour-long interview.
“Two elements of water policy should inform us,” he said. “One is introducing alien species without knowing the impact. The other is changing the natural flow of water.”
Other water issues
Doer’s list of cross-boundary water issues from east to west:
- The Lake Champlain Basin in Vermont, New York and the Canadian province of Quebec, where there was extensive flooding in 2011;
- Water quality in the Great Lakes, including the introduction of saltwater and saltwater species in ballast water of ships using the lakes;
- Lake of the Woods, now before the IJC;
- Devils Lake, the subject of four-party talks;
- The Souris River, under discussion between North Dakota and Saskatchewan;
- The Flathead River Basin in Montana and British Columbia. A proposed coal mine in Canada was abandoned after U.S. interests warned of threats to water quality and the IJC recommended a program to offset investor losses.
- The Columbia River treaty, involving the Columbia basin in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia;
- Mapping the Beaufort Sea, where there is competition for minerals, especially oil in territory claimed by the United States, Canada and potentially Russia.
A striking feature of this list is that three of its eight items involve the middle of the continent, North Dakota, Minnesota and our neighbors.
Each of these three involves Manitoba – no surprise since a fifth of all the water in North America flows through the province.
No surprise either that a Canadian diplomat with deep roots in Manitoba would have a deep interest in these water issues.
Mike Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.