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Devils Lake Project

01/23/2003
Senate Roll Call No. 22
108th Congress, 1st Session

Agreed to: 62-34 (see complete tally)
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has long been criticized for subsidizing wasteful or environmentally damaging water development projects. One project of particular concern to environmentalists is a Corps proposal to pump water from Devils Lake in north central North Dakota into the Hudson Bay watershed via the Sheyenne and Red rivers. Devils Lake, relatively shallow for many years, tripled in surface area during an unusually wet period in the mid to late 1990s, triggering calls for water stabilization. Although the lake has dropped about two feet over the past three years, the Corps—at the prodding of the North Dakota congressional delegation—has sought to justify the pumping over strong objections from residents in neighboring Minnesota and Manitoba.

Because Devils Lake is a closed basin with no natural outlet, it contains high concentrations of salts, dissolved solids and other pollutants. Pumping this water into the Sheyenne River would damage water quality and drastically increase the likelihood of introducing non-native fish and other aquatic species, as well as viruses and pathogens that could travel as far as the Hudson Bay and Canada’s Lake Winnipeg.

In order to expedite the project, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) circumvented the congressional committees that oversee the Corps and attached a rider to H.J. Res 2, the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2003. The rider authorized $100 million for the Corps’ Devils Lake project, waived the longstanding requirement that the benefits of Corps projects must exceed costs and eliminated another requirement that Canadian officials must be consulted on the project. In response, Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Mark Dayton (D-MN) and Norm Coleman (R-MN) introduced an amendment to strip the rider from the omnibus spending bill. On January 23, 2003, the Senate voted to table (kill) the McCain-Dayton-Coleman amendment by a 62-35 vote. (Senate roll call vote 22) NO is the pro-environment vote.

In an environmental impact statement released three months later, the Corps disclosed that cost estimates for the Devils Lake project had doubled from $97 million to $208 million and that the project would likely provide only 19 cents of benefit per dollar spent. Nevertheless, the Corps approved the project in October. The project’s Clean Water Act approvals are likely to be contested, and neither the Bush administration budgets nor the most recent Corps spending bill included funding to start project construction. Most recently, however, in a highly controversial decision driven by North Dakota politics, Secretary of State Colin Powell declared the project complies with the U.S.-Canada Boundary Waters Treaty, over strong Canadian objections. This unilateral finding breaks with a nearly 100-year tradition of joint decision making with Canada on boundary water pollution issues, setting the stage for further controversy.


Vote Map: Senate Roll Call No. 22
Votes For : 62
Votes Against : 34
Not Voting : 4

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