The IJC’s Red River Board is developing procedures to manage low flows and studying water quality trends across the watershed.
The updates were provided at a virtual board public meeting on Jan. 21 during the annual Red River Basin Commission conference, with more than 100 attendees. Board members spoke about ongoing and proposed projects and provided updates on work that has already been completed.
Projects underway by the board include a fish telemetry study looking at how fish move throughout the Red River system and what locations they use for habitat. This project is using radio transmitter fish tags and has been extended through 2022, when the battery life on the tags will reach its end.
Another project got underway in 2020, and is analyzing low flow conditions in the Red River basin, such as their frequency, the stresses on water usage in Canada and the United States, land use changes and how these factors may change over the next 50 years. This analysis would help evaluate the probability and risk of extreme low water conditions.
The board recently completed a water quality trend analysis project. This was used to look at how water quality has changed over time while accounting for changes in streamflow. It found sulfate amounts were increasing in the sites that had enough data available to analyze, as were chlorides and total dissolved solids. Phosphorus levels decreased in the upper Red River but were increasing in the lower Red. Trends in total nitrogen levels across the basin were mixed, with half of the sites analyzed showing an increase and half showing a decrease, but in most cases the changes were not significant.
The board also announced two project proposals it has submitted for funding to the IJC’s International Watersheds Initiative.
The first would use statistical analyses to help pinpoint factors contributing to trends of increasing sulfate and total dissolved solids in the river system. The second would foster optimization of wastewater treatment plants along the Red River as part of a voluntary nutrient reduction effort. As of January 2021, both are nearing final approval.
Besides those two submitted projects, the Red River board is proposing a project to extend Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Lake Winnipeg habitat mapping program into the Red River. This project has not been submitted yet.
The board also discussed its flood modeling effort around Pembina, North Dakota. The border town suffered extensive flooding in 1998, and a binational task force looking at potential mitigation measures has developed a visualization tool with the IJC’s help.
The board further highlighted its interest in habitat restoration projects along the Red River and strengthening outreach activities with the public and collaboration with Indigenous nations and tribes in the region. In the neighboring Souris River basin, the IJC’s Souris River Study Board is developing recommendations on Indigenous engagement and collaboration.
During the public meeting, the Red River Board received a question as to why they have a proposed nitrogen target for the river when no such target exists for the Great Lakes.
US Co-Chair Col. Karl Jansen and Canadian board member Nicole Armstrong responded that the Great Lakes are a much larger and different ecological system than the Red River basin. In the smaller Red River basin, there is a proposed target because excessive nitrogen is a factor in increasing harmful algal blooms and water quality downstream in Lake Winnipeg. Getting a handle on that problem also involves looking at phosphorus levels in the basin. Similar work aimed at modelling and understanding harmful levels of nutrients is underway in the Great Lakes.
Organizers say a recording of the meeting will be posted at the Red River Basin Commission’s conference website at redriverbasincommission.org/annual-conference.
Kevin Bunch is a writer-communications specialist at the IJC’s US Section office in Washington, D.C.