OUR OPINION: A compromise for N.D. and Manitoba

Is there a phrase in mediation to describe the point where the two sides -- standing firm and warily eyeing each other over folded arms -- nevertheless seem close enough that a deal is possible?...

Is there a phrase in mediation to describe the point where the two sides -- standing firm and warily eyeing each other over folded arms -- nevertheless seem close enough that a deal is possible?

If there is, then that phrase might just apply to the standoff between North Dakota and Manitoba over two key issues: the Devils Lake outlet and the road-acting-as-a-dike near Pembina, N.D.

As news outlets reported last week, Manitoba Premier Gary Doer has offered to spend more than $10 million to puncture the road/levee if North Dakota puts a $15 million filter on its Devils Lake outlet.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven rejected that offer, saying the two issues are unrelated.

But here's a key item that hasn't been as widely reported: North Dakota has something like a similar proposal on the table, except that the "who pays" positions are reversed.


A few years ago, North Dakota offered to pay for the drainage work on the road, which runs for 30 miles along the boarder and sits a full 12 feet above the surrounding landscape. But Canada built only two of the five proposed drains, Hoeven has said.

Meanwhile -- and in an unrelated issue, the state stresses -- North Dakota has said it would be happy to build a filter on its Devils Lake outlet, but only if Manitoba pays the bill.

So, Manitoba says, "We'll pay for the road/dike drainage if North Dakota pays for the Devils Lake filter." North Dakota counters, "No, we'll pay for the drainage, and we'd welcome Manitoba to pay for the filter."

Standing firm. Arms folded.

Time for a deal?

How about this one:

Build the filter. Install the drains.

Then split the total cost, with neither side being forced to back down from its own stance or admit the rightness of the other's.


The result would be not just "win-win," but "win-win-win-win-win" plus a few other "wins," once the results were tallied up.

North Dakota would win: The Neche and Pembina, N.D., areas at last would be drained, after having basted in an acid mix of righteous anger and spring floodwater for more than 50 years.

But also, North Dakota would benefit from the presence of the Devils Lake filter. The filter would improve the state's relations with not only Manitoba but also Minnesota, which itself has voiced strong objections to Devils Lake water reaching the Red River.

Putting Canada and Minnesota's outlet objections to rest wouldn't solve the flooding problem at Devils Lake. But it certainly could help, possibly by letting North Dakota shunt more (newly filtered) water through its outlet than the current permit allows.

Likewise, Manitoba would benefit from having the filter in place. And letting water drain through the border road would help the province, too, by healing a long-standing very sore spot with North Dakota.

Canada would win. The U.S. would win. Minnesota would win. Red River Valley residents from Fargo to Winnipeg would win.

And just as important, the wins could start piling up now -- today, rather than only after more years of waiting for actions by the national governments or the courts.

The two sides already are close -- so close, it's almost comical. Both have offered to pay for Project A. Neither wants to pay for Project B.


But projects A and B happen to cost about the same: $10 million to $15 million apiece.

So, that makes a compromise evident:

Build A -- tunnel drains through the dike/road. Build B -- put a sophisticated filter on the Devils Lake outlet.

Split the cost.

And watch as two contentious, seemingly intractable issues fade into the history books.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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