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Settlement being negotiated in lengthy U.S., Canada water fight

Settlement being negotiated in lengthy U.S., Canada water fight

BISMARCK, N.D. — U.S. and Canadian officials are negotiating an end to a 16-year legal battle over a Missouri River water project in North Dakota, though the state of Missouri also has a stake and isn’t part of the discussions.

Court documents filed May 3 show the Canadian province of Manitoba proposed a settlement in the dispute over the Northwest Area Water Supply (NAWS) project, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation countered with an alternative.

“Manitoba, the Bureau and North Dakota are hopeful that within the next several weeks they will be able to agree to final settlement terms,” Manitoba attorney Scott DuBoff wrote.

NAWS aims to bring Missouri River water to tens of thousands of people in northwestern North Dakota, giving them a reliable source of quality water.

Congress first authorized its construction in 1986, but it’s been tied up in the courts since 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.

U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer in Washington, D.C., ruled last August that the project complies with federal environmental law, clearing the way for completion of the $244 million water system. Manitoba appealed.

Minot Public Works Director Dan Jonasson in March indicated during a public meeting that Manitoba wants a say in the design of a plant that will treat the river water.

Tim Freije, NAWS project manager for North Dakota’s State Water Commission, declined to say what’s being discussed but said “if Manitoba is just looking for assurances that we’re building the project so it won’t affect them, we don’t have any problem with that.”

The Bureau of Reclamation and Manitoba’s provincial government both declined comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Any settlement 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 said the state had no standing to sue the federal government and did not consider Missouri’s claim. The state has appealed and has no plans to try to settle.

“The attorney general’s office will continue to fight vigorously against inappropriate drainage from the Missouri River to protect Missouri’s farmers and consumers,” spokeswoman Mary Compton said in a statement.

Freije said North Dakota isn’t worried about Missouri’s claim.

“The water rights for North Dakota are set by the state of North Dakota, and not the state of Missouri,” he said.

Collyer allowed much of the project’s infrastructure to be built while the court battle played out. She lifted all remaining injunctions on construction last fall.

A combined $129 million in federal, state and local money has been spent so far on more than 225 miles of pipeline and other infrastructure, according to Freije.

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.

The project’s goal is to provide river water to about 82,000 in the coming decades, though future state and federal funding isn’t guaranteed.

“If I had unlimited funds to work with, we could have it done in six to eight years,” Freije said. “But we don’t have unlimited funds.”

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