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Who minds the Red’s flow in drought years?

Recent rains here in the Red River Basin have had many of us worrying about getting crops off the fields, and certainly not about drought. But history in the basin promises us that drought, to some degree or another, will indeed be part of our experience here. Are we prepared for it?

According to a study on drought and water law sponsored by the Red River Basin Commission, it appears the Red River, whose waters many basin residents and businesses depend on for everyday supplies, might be left high and dry.

The report points out Manitoba, North Dakota and South Dakota all use the water law of prior appropriation. In times of water shortage, these jurisdictions can cut off more recent water permit holders on the Red, but are still bound to supply water to earlier users. Manitoba and South Dakota have some provisions to protect water for domestic use, but these would protect only a portion of the waters.

In short, the first responsibility in these three jurisdictions is to their earliest permit holders – not to keeping a flow in the Red River.

Minnesota has laws protecting flows in times of water shortage, but these would have little effect on the Red, because if South Dakota, North Dakota and Manitoba have legal claim to the water necessary to satisfy their “first-rights” users, there may be little or no flow left to protect. Thus Minnesota has said it may not attempt to apply its statutes that protect flow to the Red.

So who would ensure flow in the Red River in times of drought? The answer is, apparently, no one single organization. The study suggests it’s “entirely possible” that in times of low flow, more water could be allocated to users than would be available – and “quite conceivable” that waters could be dried up by the point of the international border, leaving Manitoba with virtually nothing to allocate to anyone.

Therefore, “an extended low flow condition or drought will create enormous competition for the limited surface water supplies, with each jurisdiction taking what it can while the water is in their jurisdiction, with little regard for other, downstream interests,” the report says.

It appears clear we need to continue serious work on drought policy here in the Red River basin. The RRBC plans to bring jurisdictions together to encourage development of a basin-wide plan that won’t leave the Red as an orphan in times of drought.

– The Red River Basin Commission’s annual conference will be in Winnipeg on Jan. 20-22, 2009. For more information visit

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