The Red River Basin, as well as much of central Canada and the United States, is in the throes of a water crisis, a Canadian water policy expert told some 200 people attending an international conference Tuesday at Grand Forks' Alerus Center.

Robert Sandford, author of four books, including his latest, "Cold Matters: The State and Fate of Canada's Fresh Water," cited climate change and a series of other factors, many manmade, that threaten the ecology of Lake Winnipeg and the region.

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The changing climate is spawning more floods, droughts and storms, as well as a diminished ability to forecast them, he said. Yet, he is hopeful, saying groups such as the one gathered in Grand Forks this week, are on the right track.

The 30th Annual Red River Basin Land and Water International Summit Conference includes water managers and other officials from North Dakota, Minnesota, South Dakota and Manitoba.

"The sky is not falling," Sandford said. "We know how to restore ecological systems, but we have to act now. We need to mobilize at a higher, more intensified level."

The three-day event, hosted by the Red River Basin Commission, included success stories from three decades of projects undertaken throughout the basin.

They range from the production of a sustainable storm water management guides, to levee construction, to water supply projects.

"We had several wet years followed by some increasingly dry years," said RRBC Chairman Jon Evert, Comstock, Minn. "While we continue to work to be increasingly more resilient to flooding and risks associated with flooding, we also acknowledge that too little water can create serious issues in our basin."

Drainage practices

In a morning drainage workshop, experts in their fields discussed the increase of tile drainage in the Red River Valley, as well as drainage water management practices and incentive programs.

Dave Jones, Natural Resource Conservation Service area engineer in Thief River Falls, described a controlled drainage system in which underground gates are installed to raise and lower the water table at different times of the year.

Such a practice, he said, can provide a variety of benefits, including nutrient reduction, soil moisture preservation, increased crop yields, timely and uniform fieldwork, dormant-season saturation, flood-season water storage and wildlife enhancement.

"NRCS is not advocating tile drainage as the be-all-end-all," he said. "It's just one of the tools in the toolbox for effective water management."

Chuck Fritz, director of the Fargo-based International Water Institute, which last year completed a year-long study of tile drainage in the valley, stressed the need for common regulations across political boundaries.

He cited the example of North Dakota requiring drainage permits only for projects covering 80 or more acres, while Minnesota has no such acreage regulation. Since 2011, when the North Dakota established the 80-acre rule, the number of 79-acre tile drainage projects has multiplied.

"I can't stress how important it's going to be for uniform permitting policies or regulations across the entire basin," Fritz said.

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to kbonham@gfherald.com.