- Associated Press - Sunday, October 26, 2014

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - Back in 2008, efforts to create an organization to work on water issues across the Assiniboine River Basin never gained traction. Uneventful weather and normal drainage lulled the concern about the limited cross-border dialogue.

Then came the flood of 2011 in the Souris River sub-basin and the flood of 2014 from high water in the Qu-Appelle and Assiniboine sub-basins in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Efforts to develop a collaborative organizational structure in North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan suddenly became more pressing, the Minot Daily News (http://bit.ly/1rpRu7K ) reported.

Communities are realizing the significance of water management, not just to guard against flooding but to address times of drought and protect water quality, said Wanda McFadyen of Winnipeg, project manager for the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative.

A grassroots workshop was held in March in Virden, Manitoba, to define the needs of key stakeholders and discuss whether a working organization would be useful. There was enough interest to move forward with an Assiniboine River Basin Initiative conference, set for Nov. 12 through 14 in Regina, Saskatchewan.

“The folks who have come on board are really very, very positive,” McFadyen said. “We are not sure what our role is going to be. That will be decided at the conference by the grassroots. It’s very much their initiative.”

Currently, a steering committee has been holding meetings, although the opportunity for input exists for anyone with an interest in water issues, McFadyen said. The group has been meeting through conference calls, which are open to public participation. The November conference also is open to anyone who wants to be part of the discussion.

Should conferees decide to continue to move forward, a governing board is expected to be created with equal representation from both provinces and North Dakota.

Conference participants will look at governance models and options for funding an organization. Prairie Improvement Network, a Canadian nonprofit group focused on rural sustainability, provided $100,000 for the first phase of research into the Assiniboine initiative and is providing $260,000 for the second phase. The Manitoba government has committed $50,000, and similar amounts are sought from North Dakota and Saskatchewan. The North Dakota State Water Commission has been supportive of the initiative. Pat Fridgen, head of planning and education at the water commission, is a member of the initiative’s executive and steering committees.

Kenny Rogers of Maxbass, also a member of the steering committee, said an organization of this type is long overdue. The basin has common interests that go beyond water to include agricultural and oil economies, which creates broad opportunities for working together, he said.

“This is a grassroots type of organization that will help the government look at priority problems,” Rogers said. “We need to be working together on real problems. Hopefully, this will be a way to do that.”

The goal of the Assiniboine River Basin Initiative is to complement the work of existing boards, including the Joint Souris River Board and local government agencies that are involved in water management issues, McFadyen said. Existing agencies tend to have parameters in which they work, while the initiative can bring more comprehensive focus and a grassroots understanding to those processes, she said.

A model already exists in the Red River Basin Commission, which involves water interests in North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba.

The Assiniboine Basin consists of three main rivers and their tributaries. The Qu’Appelle River runs 267 miles through Saskatchewan to join the Assiniboine River in Manitoba. The Assiniboine River runs for 660 miles through Saskatchewan and Manitoba, passing through Brandon and Winnipeg. The Souris River, or Mouse River, runs about 435 miles, starting in Saskatchewan and wandering into North Dakota before veering north into Manitoba, where it meets its confluence with the Assiniboine. The basin eventually drains into the Hudson Bay.

When it comes to water management, the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine river have limited controls. The Souris River has a series of control structures, of which the significant ones are the Rafferty and Almeda dams in Saskatchewan. The 58,700-acre J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge is also located along the Souris River in north-central North Dakota.

The three sub-basins of the Assiniboine interconnect in ways that create some common concerns. The rivers and their tributaries recharge aquifers that are essential to the region, McFadyen said. Protecting water quality by managing runoff, whether agricultural or urban, is an issue for which the initiative can engage farmers and city leaders, she said. The initiative provides a way for groups on both sides of the border to work together on water protection and drainage issues so that good projects don’t have to stop at the border, she said.

“You have agencies and governments that are not going to want to give up their authority and we will not ask them to do that, but how do we complement the work they are doing?” she said.

A collaborative group can help seek grants, prevent duplication of efforts, bridge jurisdictional boundaries and provide an information exchange so downstream residents know what is happening upstream, she said.

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Information from: Minot Daily News, http://www.minotdailynews.com

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