Canadian native leaders say they'll invoke centuries-old international land treaties to stop North Dakota from draining a polluted and parasite-infested North Dakota lake into Manitoba's Red River.
The case may eventually be brought before the International Joint Commission.
"We have certain rights and we're ready to go to court to enforce them," said Phil Fontaine this week. He is national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
Native groups on both sides of the border are preparing to mount a legal challenge in U.S. courts to block North Dakota from draining the landlocked Devils Lake, Fontaine said Wednesday.
The announcement comes as federal and provincial officials mounted a last-ditch lobbying effort in Washington to persuade the U.S. government to refer the dispute to the International Joint Commission, an independent bilateral panel.
Canadian and Manitoba officials said they, too, are investigating various legal options to block the project, which they say threatens a 98-year-old agreement to jointly manage waters flowing across the border.
North Dakota is three months away from completing a $28 million project that would remove water from Devils Lake, 100 miles south of the Manitoba border, and dump it into a Red River tributary.
North Dakota is digging an outlet to lower the level of the lake, which has been rising over the past decade and is encroaching on farmland, homes and utility lines.
Manitoba Premier Gary Doer said the project sets a dangerous precedent by allowing states and provinces to alter waterways without consulting their neighbors, as required by the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty.
"We have a situation now where if any province or state can proceed with outlaw, unilateral projects . . . it renders this treaty useless," he said. "This is bigger than Manitoba and North Dakota."
Doer said he was encouraged after a meeting Wednesday with U.S. assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega. But he said time is running out and Noriega made no promises.
Canadian and Manitoba officials argue that the diversion project would do little to ease North Dakota's problems and could jeopardize the quality of water in the Red River, which flows through the state, into Manitoba and eventually into Lake Winnipeg in Canada.
They also argue that there is no rush to complete the diversion project because the lake's level is expected to fall this year because of below-normal snowfall this winter.
Prime Minister Paul Martin raised the issue when he met President Bush in Waco, Texas, last month. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has promised to make a decision on referring the case to the joint commission within a month.
But it's unclear whether that would stop the lake from being drained. The joint commission does not have the power to block the project.
Manitoba, meanwhile, is awaiting word from the North Dakota Supreme Court on its bid to stop the project. The Great Lakes Commission, made up of eight states plus Quebec and Ontario, is urging the White House to refer the case to the joint commission.