Manitoba-North Dakota Border Flooding Issue Flares Up Again

“We want all the drainage to occur as nature intended.”


Bryon Heinrichs steers his pickup truck westward and drives cautiously along a rutted embankment with bare cropland on both sides. The fields are slowly drying out after being flooded by the spring melt four weeks earlier. That is, some fields were flooded. Some weren’t.

Aerial photos taken in late April show land on the south side of the embankment under water right up to the edge. On the north side, the land appears mostly dry.

This is ground zero along the 49th parallel for a long-standing but little-known border irritant that has simmered between Canada and the United States for more than 60 years.

To the south side of the embankment lies North Dakota. Manitoba is on the north side. The Canadians call the embankment, just a few metres inside provincial territory, a road. The Americans call it a dike which causes their land to flood periodically in spring. They want it removed.

Heinrichs stops the truck, gets out and clambers down the side of the bank to a set of four culverts chanelling water from south to north. The water empties into the Aux Marais River, which flows through Heinrichs’s farm.

The culverts are a sore spot for Heinrichs. He feels U. S. farmers shouldn’t complain about losing crops to flooding when, in his mind, he helps to relieve the problem and takes a hit in the process.

“We’re supposed to be the bad guys, but I’ve lost as much money as any of them has,” said Heinrichs, 59, whose farm, homesteaded by his ancestors in the late 1800s, straddles the border east of Gretna.

Heinrichs and other locals admit pictures taken from the air make it look as if the road dams up flood water on the U. S. side. Everyone agrees the water spills over from the Pembina River, which enters the U. S. at Neche, North Dakota and reenters Manitoba near Emerson, eventually emptying into the Red River at Letellier.

But that’s where agreement ends.

The Americans say the dike, masquerading as a road, has been built up over the years to form a 48-km-long barrier along the Manitoba side of the border. The Canadians say much of the road is actually more like a trail and only a 15-to 25-km stretch is at issue.

They counter that the real problem is North Dakota County Road 55 on the south side of the Pembina River, which acts as a dam and artificially forces flood water northward.

The Americans reject the idea, insisting the landscape slopes toward the north and the road/ dike along the border prevents water from draining naturally.

“The water is trying to flow downhill, as it were, and this road dike is stopping that,” said Lance Gaebe, deputy chief of staff for North Dakota Governor John Hoeven. “We want all the drainage to occur as nature intended.”

Dwight Williamson, Manitoba Water Stewardship assistant deputy minister, dismisses North Dakota’s arguments that flood water from the Pembina naturally drains northward toward Manitoba.

“Typically, much of this water would flow southward to join the Tongue River and County Road 55 acts as a barrier to prevent it from flowing southward. The consequence is that it’s forced northward,” Williamson said.

Estimates of the damages vary.

The North Dakota State Water Commission, in a slide presentation posted on Governor Hoeven’s website, speaks of “millions of dollars in crop losses and damages to infrastructure.”

But officials with the Rural Municipality of Rhineland, which includes most of the road, estimate flooding affects roughly 10,000 acres in the state, compared to over 236,000 acres in southern Manitoba which were flooded by the Red River this spring.

“The U. S. guys are usually on the land as soon as we are,” said Heinrichs, a former councillor with the next-door municipality of Montcalm.

Even the road’s history is unclear. The North Dakota State Water Commission says private residents in Manitoba began building dikes just north of the border in 1946, eventually consolidating them into a single structure 48 km long. Williamson said Manitoba landowners began erecting earthworks only after illegally built dikes in North Dakota pushed more water to the north than usual.

The only thing that’s certain is North Dakota’s resolve to get rid of the so-called border dike.

Earlier this month, Governor Hoeven called the dike “a clear violation” of the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty between Canada and the U. S. He called on U. S. State Department officials to intervene.

“We are asking that the State Department seek removal of the dike and work with us on a plan to build comprehensive drainage that will protect the entire region, not just one side of the border,” Hoeven said in a May 6 statement.

The Internat ional Joint Commission, which administers the Boundary Waters Treaty, recommended in a 2000 report that Manitoba and North Dakota form a consultative group “to resolve the lower Pembina River flooding issue.”

Since then, the IJC’s International Red River Board has begun joint studies into drainage patterns in the Pembina watershed to better understand the contour of the land and the natural water flow.

A 2002 agreement between Manitoba and North Dakota saw two of the six drains along the road upgraded and enlarged. The state inspected, approved and contributed US$357,000 toward the $2.7 million project, completed in August 2005.

But many in North Dakota still consider the measures inadequate.

“The road dike has no bridges and just a few small culverts for drainage, essentially making it a dam that causes water to back up on the North Dakota side of the border. That results in the flooding of homes and farms on our side of the border while protecting Canadian property owners,” Hoeven said.

But Hoeven’s further claim that none of the drains was open in 2006 when the region experienced similar flooding is not accurate, according to Williamson.

The Pembina County Water Resource District, together with other North Dakota communities, is pursuing a lawsuit against the province and municipalities along the border, seeking the dike’s removal. The case, filed in Federal Court in April 2004, could go to trial this fall.

Some in Manitoba feel the province has done more than enough to accommodate American concerns.

“We have done everything that ought to be done,” said Jack Penner, a former local MLA, whose farm is six miles north of the road/dike. “What we have done so far, in my view, has broken no international law.”

Williamson said the IJC study, when finished, will give a better picture of how water in the region drains and where flood control works should go. In the meantime, people should not jump to conclusions until more facts are known, he said.

For Heinrichs, the saddest thing about the dispute is its effect on neighbourly relations. He remembers when farmers on either side of the border would give a friendly wave and stop to visit.

Now that’s changed, he said. “We’ve lost contact. We talk very little.” [email protected]

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