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“Dams of Contention” examines reservoir controversy

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Bill Redekop signed copies of his new book, “Dams of Contention: The Rafferty-Alameda Story and the Birth of Canadian Environmental Law” during a book launch at the Estevan Public Library on May 8.

The construction of Rafferty and Alameda Dams has long been a source of interest, and a cause for criticism, for award-winning Winnipeg-based writer Bill Redekop.

Redekop was at the Estevan Public Library on May 8 to promote his latest book, “Dams of Contention: The Rafferty-Alameda Story and the Birth of Canadian Environmental Law.” He read excerpts from his book, signed copies of the story, and offered reasons for his opposition to the dams.

“There's so many facets to it, but it just seemed so wrong what took place, the way they rammed it through, and the way that people like the Tetzlaffs (Alameda farmers Ed and Harold Tetzlaff), who were landowners, were having their land expropriated for the benefit of the U.S.,” said Redekop.

Redekop labeled the construction of Rafferty and Alameda as a story about a coalition of interests, the environmental degradation of an area, a gross financial mismanagement and an abuse of power by the government.

And as the title indicates, he contends that the dams led to the creation of environmental law in Canada.

“It determined that the government guidelines that were on the books at that time were, in fact, not just guidelines, but law,” Redekop told the audience. “They weren't just guidelines that were under the discretion of the environment minister.”

American environmental law was a generation ahead of Canada's at the time.

“That's why North Dakota looked to Saskatchewan to get the dams built,” said Redekop. “Canada was still the wild west as far as environmental law was concerned. Rafferty-Alameda was a snapshot of that period. The law that resulted from the court fights with Rafferty-Alameda would make federal environmental assessments legally binding.”

Most of the emphasis in previous accounts of the dams' construction has been on Rafferty; Alameda has avoided scrutiny, Redekop said. There was an economic basis for Rafferty, he said. It serves as flood control for Estevan and Roche Percee, and it provides a service for SaskPower's Shand Power Station.

“There is none whatsoever with Alameda, which floods 23 kilometres of lush prairie valley,” Redekop said while reading from his book. “The Alameda Reservoir should really be called Lake America, and this book is about how it came into being.”

According to Redekop, when former Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine announced plans for the dams, Devine said they would cost $120 million; North Dakota would pay $41 million, or more than a third, of the cost.

The final cost was at least $310 million, with only $60 million, or less than 20 per cent, coming from the U.S.

"Dams of Contention" portrays many of the key players during the construction of the dams, including Devine, who represented the Estevan constituency during his nine years at the helm of the province. It also considers the role of provincial and federal cabinet ministers, and political leaders from North Dakota.

The book also shares the battles and experiences of Ed and Harold Tetzlaff, the farming brothers whose Alameda-area farm was directly upstream from Alameda Dam. The Tetzlaffs launched a federal court challenge in the early 1990s, asking for a proper federal environmental assessment.

The Tetzlaffs ultimately lost their court challenge, five quarter sections of land and their cattle operation, but Redekop maintains they won the war, as their efforts led to the creation of environmental laws in Canada.

"Dams of Contention" also shared the story of one person in the federal Ministry of Environment who quit her position as senior advisor over the handling of the dams controversy: Elizabeth May. May is now the leader of the federal Green Party.

Redekop says he was working on "Dams of Contention" prior to the Souris River floods of 2011. But the floods changed the dynamic of his story. The first chapter and portions of the end focus on last year's flooding, and the floods are alluded to several times during the story.

“I had to rewrite quite a bit,” said Redekop.

He hadn't started looking for a publisher prior to the floods; he suspects the disaster might have made it a little easier for somebody to take a chance on “Dams of Contention.”

The floods of 2011 also changed how North Dakotans perceived the two southeast Saskatchewan dams and their ability to protect the state from flooding.

“Until 2011, North Dakotans couldn't thank the Saskatchewan people enough for paying for their flood protection for the dams that protected Minot through some high water years,” said Redekop.

The two dams have saved Minot tens of millions of dollars from damage caused by flooding. But now people want to know why the dams weren't able to save 4,100 Minot homes from being submerged.

Redekop noted that North Dakota opted for Rafferty and Alameda over another option: Burlington Dam, which would have offered protection against a 1-in-500 years flood.

“It would have given them a fighting chance,” said Redekop. “They had water up to the rooftops, and for three weeks, it just sat there. It was like a bowl.”

He was in Minot on May 9 for a book launch. Another launch was held May 7 in Regina. He'll also promote the book on May 16 in Winnipeg.

“Dams of Contention” is published by Heartland Associates.

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