‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

<span>Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images

Along the eastern boundary of the White Earth Indian Reservation in north-western Minnesota, Indigenous Anishinaabe wild rice harvesters Jerry and Jim Libby set down a row of wooden pallets into the mud just beyond the dock of Upper Wild Rice Lake. It was a clear day, and tight, lush clumps of green rice heads were visible across the lake’s horizon.

In a typical year, the entrance to this – one of a long necklace of wild rice lakes in northern Minnesota to which the region’s Indigenous people flock every year in the late summer – would be covered in at least two feet of water. But now it is composed of suspended sediment as solid as chocolate pudding, through which the Libbys need to create a makeshift ramp simply to carry their canoe out to the waterline.

Minnesota is weathering an historic drought, but there is another problem beyond the weather: Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline has taken a substantial toll on watersheds in the region, including through a permit to pump five billion gallons of water for construction. In the case of Upper Wild Rice Lake, a road construction contractor named Knife River Construction stuck a pump directly in the lake this past June, sucking out an unknown quantity of water, which locals suspect was related to the use of heavy trucks for the pipeline.

“As far as I’m concerned, Enbridge screwed up our lake, and they’re taking money directly away from our families,” Jerry Libby says. “It makes us feel anguished – this is our staple food, you know.”

The Indigenous-led struggle against Line 3, which seeks to move 930,000 barrels of tar sands bitumen daily from Alberta to a shipping and refinery hub in Superior, Wisconsin, has been the biggest environmental and Indigenous land protection campaign in the US this summer. More than 900 people have been arrested opposing the pipeline, including nearly 70 who were kettled in late August during protests outside Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s residence in Minneapolis.

Branded as a “replacement” project, the new pipeline would double the old Line 3’s capacity to carry tar sands bitumen. Enbridge, a Canada-based energy company, has announced it will begin sending oil through the pipeline next month.

The processing and combustion of bitumen for the pipeline would release greenhouse gases equivalent to 50 coal plants, according to analysis by the nonprofit Oil Change International, thereby significantly contributing to the global climate crisis. But one of the pipeline’s most immediate impacts is on wild rice harvesters such as the Libbys, for whom the annual harvesting season began in late August and runs through much of September.

Wild rice – known to many Anishinaabe people as “manoomin,” or “the food that grows on water” – is a dense, nutritional grain that grows naturally in the abundant lakes and rivers in Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Canada. Thousands of Anishinaabe people continue to harvest it with the same traditional methods used for generations, by propelling a canoe or small boat through the rice beds with a long pole.

Indigenous people of the region believe they have a sacred covenant to protect manoomin and numerous other nonhuman beings, without which they would cease to exist as distinct peoples, notes longtime Anishinaabe rice harvester Bob Shimek. “During any kind of ceremony we do here, wild rice is involved,” Shimek says. “It’s kind of like the Anishinaabe soul food.”

Line 3 runs across more than 200 bodies of water, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River and some of the region’s most important wild rice waters, streams, rivers, lakes and aquifers. The state Department of Natural Resources permitted Enbridge to draw nearly five billion gallons from these water bodies absent public notice or consultation with the White Earth Indian Reservation.

Christy Dolph, a University of Minnesota research scientist focused on the state’s water resources, notes that the pipeline’s impacts on water and the species that depend on it are numerous. In the course of excavating trenches to lay pipe, Enbridge pumps out any groundwater that still seeps into the trench, inevitably leading water to evaporate.

“These activities have a major impact, especially because these wetlands are already under severe stress from the drought,” she says.

Opponents also fear leaks and spills from the tar sands pipeline, particularly since the thick substance is nearly impossible to clean up.

As with other wetland plant species, wild rice is highly sensitive to fluctuations in water levels, which damage its ability both to grow and reseed. For rice harvesters, low water levels mean they are unable to paddle their canoes out to their usual rice grounds, depriving them of a major source of physical and spiritual sustenance, as well as a significant source of income.

During a typical year, the Libby brothers say, they make up to $9,000 from rice harvesting, which they use for basic necessities like home repairs, school supplies for their grandchildren and vehicle maintenance. But since this year’s harvesting season began in late August, many harvesters have had to resort to unorthodox methods such as trekking through the muddy, dried-out lakes in snow shoes with burlap sacks slung around their shoulders, a technique that yields one-third to one-fourth the amount they could harvest with canoes.

Enbridge disputes the notion that they bear any responsibility for the dry conditions in rice beds near the pipeline route or that the pipeline has a detrimental impact on watersheds. “Line 3’s permit conditions protect the environment during construction, and specifically wild rice,” Enbridge spokersperson Juli Kelner wrote via email. “Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota’s most sacred and productive wild rice stands for seven decades.”

In response to a request for comment, a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson wrote that “Minnesota DNR has worked consistently to minimize the impacts of the Line 3 replacement project on wild rice and other Minnesota resources. These efforts date back to our original comments to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) regarding project routing, where we strongly advocated for route alternatives that would minimize crossings in or near wild rice waters.”

The effects of Line 3 construction on wild rice are at the center of a first of its kind lawsuit brought by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in which wild rice is itself the plaintiff. Under a series of treaties that Chippewa Anishinaabe people signed with the US government during the mid-19th century, the lawsuit asserts, wild rice “possesses inherent rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and evolve, as well as inherent rights to restoration, recovery, and preservation.” The suit seeks an injunction against the Department of Natural Resources to void Enbridge’s water permit, though the case may not be decided until after construction is completed.

Beyond the direct effects of the Line 3 pipeline, wild rice faces numerous other threats – including from the climate crisis. According to a 2018 report by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC), an intertribal agency that seeks to protect Anishinaabe treaty rights, climate change will wreak devastation on virtually all the plant and animal species on which they rely. Wild rice is the most endangered of these species because of its sensitivity to flooding, drought, and disease outbreaks, the report says.

Stopping Line 3 is imperative to fighting the climate crisis, opponents note, because tar sands are one of the most intensive fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and because the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure locks in emissions for decades to come. For the past several months, activists have called on the Biden administration to stop the pipeline by directing the Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the permit it granted the project under the Trump administration.

According to Anishinaabe wild rice harvester Angel Stevens, a member of the anti-pipeline Manoomin Camp, the struggle against Line 3 is still going strong despite the project’s imminent completion. “We’re continuing to do everything we can to stop this pipeline,” she says.