Madam Speaker, it is a great pleasure this evening to take part at this late hour of 11:30 p.m. in this important debate on the potential dangers of this project to divert water from Devils Lake into the Red River and, more specifically, Lake Winnipeg.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. Not only could this project have a serious impact on Lake Winnipeg, but it could set a real and dangerous precedent for other international boundary waters near the Quebec—United States border.
First, it is important to remind Quebeckers who are unfamiliar with this project—if the truth be told—of its potential impact. This ambitious project was first undertaken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Then the state of North Dakota sponsored and headed the project. Its aim, in theory, is to prevent the flooding of various farms and lands around Devils Lake.
In recent years, the water level in Devils Lake has risen dramatically. Some say it has even tripled. This increase, which occurred over a 10-year period, was caused by runoff, but also by significant spring flooding. As a result, as I said, the water level is Devils Lake has risen dramatically.
So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to build a 22-km channel to divert the water. At $28 million, this was an ambitious and costly project to divert overflow to the Sheyenne River, the Red River and ultimately, Lake Winnipeg. As I mentioned, the aim of this project was to prevent lands and farms around Devils Lake from being flooded.
This is a major project: it cost $28 million to build a 22-km channel. We can say, today, that, for all intents and purposes, this project has been completed, since over 90% of the channel has been built.
Why did we need to hold an emergency debate so late this evening on this plan? Because the diversion canal is scheduled to open in a few weeks. Some say it will open on July 1, others a little later. What we know for sure is that the plan is to open the diversion canal so that these waters and additional levels of water can divert directly into Lake Winnipeg.
Why should we oppose this plan? There are basically two reasons for imposing a moratorium on this plan. The first reason has to do with the environment.
Those who know Lake Winnipeg will say without a doubt that it is one of the most beautiful lakes here in Canada and that for many years, considerable efforts have been made by the governments to restore the quality of the water in this lake to 1970 levels.
The quality of the water in Lake Winnipeg has varied considerably over the past few years. Intense restoration and action plans were developed to make sure the water in Lake Winnipeg could be restored to its 1970 quality. Considerable efforts were made by the community, the government and stakeholders. We were in the process of restoring the quality of the water in Lake Winnipeg that the public was right to demand.
Those who know Devils Lake can say without fear of error that it is among the most polluted. This lake, which is in Dakota, contains phosphorus, nitrate and other contaminants. What would this project do? It would mean that these contaminants from one of the most polluted lakes could end up in Lake Winnipeg, whose water quality stakeholders and the government have expended considerable effort in recent years to improve.
Is it right, then, when one community works to improve the water quality of its lakes, for parliamentarians to approve a project that provides for the transfer of phosphorous and nitrate contaminants from Devils Lake to Lake Winnipeg, through various tributaries, either the Sheyenne River or even the Red River? The answer is no, because in environmental and community terms, it is unacceptable.
Furthermore, in environmental terms, this project runs the risk of having significant negative consequences for Lake Winnipeg, because of the transfer of invasive species. We know what it is, when we talk to people living around the Great Lakes, who have worked hard to keep the numbers of these invasive species from growing. So we must not wish for people living around Lake Winnipeg to find themselves in the same situation as people living on the shores of certain rivers in Ontario, with regard to the proliferation of invasive species in the Great Lakes.
Therefore, in environmental and community terms, the project is unacceptable because it risks, first, transferring contaminants from Devils Lake to Lake Winnipeg and, second, increasing the proliferation of invasive species in Lake Winnipeg.
There is another basic reason for opposing this type of project and that is for economic reasons. In the case of Lake Winnipeg, we know that the activities of commercial fishing are vital. Commercial fishing in Lake Winnipeg represents some $25 million. We can ask ourselves the following question: what impact would this project have, in view of what I have just said, on the economic activity of commercial fishing in Lake Winnipeg?
There are grounds for concern. When one believes in sustainable development and knows that environmental protection is directly tied to economic and social development, it is clear that this project does not in any way respond to the issues relating to development, which we want to be sustainable development.
From the moment there are environmental and economic risks related to this project, energetic action must be taken.
In my opinion, there are two things that must be done promptly. Diplomatic action, of course, The government and the Prime Minister have interceded with U.S. President George Bush to ensure that this project will not come to pass.
My colleague has already addressed the importance for us, as parliamentarians, to make the state of Dakota aware of the considerable risks surrounding this project.
The Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development has passed a motion, in fact, calling for this project not to take place without the International Joint Commission being informed of it. This, in my opinion, is the kind of diplomatic action that we, as parliamentarians, can take promptly.
Secondly, we must not be afraid to use legal means against certain states that do not respect the most fundamental historical element in Canada-U.S. relations, the Boundary Waters Treaty, signed in 1909. Under that treaty, when plans for diversion from one country to another have an impact, the International Joint Commission must be informed of the issue. When there is a risk of contaminant transfer, the international joint commission must be informed. This is, in my opinion, a treaty which respects the concept of sustainable development in an atmosphere of reciprocity.
We do know, however, that Canada was informed of this project. As far back as 2002, a plan, then described by the government as being at the embryonic stage, was submitted by the U.S corps of engineers. In principle this submission included mediation measures to ensure the least possible environmental impact.
We were told at the time—as the parliamentary secretary said this evening—that this was not a project of the state of Dakota, but rather one that involved the U.S. army corps of engineers. Yet the offer was made to the Canadian government to refer this matter to the International Joint Commission.
As far back as 2002, the most basic principles of prudence and caution ought to have prompted the government to submit this matter to the IJC immediately. We on this side of the House are well aware that, for a question to be referred to and examined by the IJC, both parties are required, that is both nations. Yet in 2002 Canada refused the U.S. invitation to submit it to the IJC.
There is one thing that is food for thought. It is true that Canada is today using diplomatic pressure and following the motions from the Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, which may go as far as legal proceedings, but it had the opportunity in 2002 to submit this matter to the IJC in keeping with the U.S. proposal. It decided to turn its back on its responsibilities at that time.
This project means there is still a chance. The government—reading the Boundary Waters Treaty properly and being familiar with the IJC—knows that Canada can make a unilateral request for the IJC to look into the issue. The commission's response, however, will not be a decision, of course, just an opinion or advice.
At least the matter will have been referred to International Joint Commission. I think that is fundamental. We must therefore make sure that this project is not allowed to proceed until the matter has been referred to the IJC. In a system like ours, we cannot permit such projects to take place without an independent environmental assessment. Today, one can even wonder whether this diversion project is a good thing.
When we review the assessments and see that the project in question will only provide a reduction of 1.5 inch per year of the water level in Devils Lake, this raises questions about the very basis for the project scheduled to get under way in just a few weeks. Could the state of Dakota not have contemplated other options? Could restoring the wetlands around the lake have been an alternative to this type of project? Could sand filtering equipment not have been installed as an alternative to this project, which has cost $28 million and, at the end of the day, might only provide a reduction of 1.5 inch per year of the water level in Devils Lake?
The project itself has to be called into question in terms of its efficiency, as well as its environmental impact and negative externalities.
Beyond Devils Lake, this project will set a dangerous precedent which will affect not only Devils Lake and Lake Winnipeg, but also all boundary waters between Canada and the United States. There is indeed a risk that, should this project proceed without the International Joint Commission having had the matter referred to it, Quebec could be next, and such a project could take place in Quebec without a referral to the IJC. It is important to tell Quebeckers today that what is happening in this case today could very well happen in Quebec tomorrow. The true role of the International Joint Commission, as well as the very basis for the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 and its true influence on the capacity to deal with water diversions, have been seriously prejudiced.
Accordingly, as I have a minute left, I will conclude by saying that I support the diplomatic and legal efforts of my colleagues in the House, unreservedly, because there is no partisanship associated with a project of this type, today. I know that my NDP colleague has worked very hard in the parliamentary committee. In my opinion, this is a common cause, and there is a common danger. Regardless of what political party we belong to, the very issue of Canadian sovereignty and environmental protection is being called into question. This risks affecting Canada—U.S. relations markedly.
So, we have the task of seeing that communities around Lake Winnipeg, which have implemented substantial measures to improve water quality, are not bullied about overnight. In addition, all the efforts to have the quality of Lake Winnipeg water restored to 1970 levels must not be wasted because of this project, which would transfer not only pollutants but invasive species from Devils Lake, which is in a terrible state, to Lake Winnipeg, where the community has worked extremely hard.