BISMARCK, N.D. — Canada will have a say in the operation of a major Missouri River water project in the northern U.S. under a deal negotiated by officials in the two countries to end a 16-year-legal battle.
The agreement on the $244 million Northwest Area Water Supply project won’t be final until a federal appeals court formally dismisses the case, and the state of Missouri also is still fighting the project in court. But the deal will end the international dispute that has held up completion of the project first authorized by Congress in 1986.
The project aims to bring Missouri River water to as many as 82,000 people in northwestern North Dakota, giving them a reliable source of quality water. Manitoba sued in 2002 over concerns about the possible transfer of harmful bacteria or other agents from the Missouri River Basin to the Hudson Bay Basin.
The agreement reached between the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Canadian province of Manitoba sets up a team with Canadian representation to oversee treatment and monitoring of the river water, and among other duties help develop an emergency response plan. The team also is to have representatives of the state and federal governments south of the border, and is to meet at least once a year.
The Manitoba government in a statement to The Associated Press called the agreement “a crucial deal” that will allow the province to end its court fight. U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington, D.C., ruled last August that the water project complied with federal environmental law, but Manitoba appealed.
“Without this settlement, Manitoba would not have a voice in the future of the NAWS project,” the statement said. “The province is ensuring that Manitoba is involved in the discussion when important decisions are made that could affect Manitoba’s waterways.”
The Bureau of Reclamation declined comment until the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit acts on a joint motion filed by U.S. and Canadian officials asking for dismissal of Manitoba’s appeal.
North Dakota is a part of that motion. Tim Freije, NAWS project manager for North Dakota’s State Water Commission, said the state has no problem with Manitoba being given a role on the team that will oversee water treatment and monitoring.
The deal won’t resolve Missouri’s claims. The state joined the lawsuit in 2009 over fears that NAWS would deplete the Missouri River water it needs for residents and its shipping and agriculture industries. Collyer ruled the state had no standing to sue the federal government. The state has appealed, though state Solicitor General John Sauer acknowledges in court documents that even a ruling favorable to the state might not stop the project. Freije has said North Dakota isn’t worried about Missouri’s claim.
Collyer has allowed some work on the water project to be done through the years. A combined $129 million in federal, state and local money has been spent on more than 225 miles of pipeline and other infrastructure. The system currently serves about 25,000 people, though the water comes not from the river but from Minot’s water treatment plant, which relies on groundwater. Future state and federal funding is not guaranteed.
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