This locally written and published chronicle of the battle over the Rafferty and Alameda dams reads more like a thriller than a conventional history.
Dams of Contention offers the combustible mix of a venal government, back-door political dealing and perhaps the most atypical group of environmental activists ever assembled.
This is not a linear history. While the political struggle took place in Saskatchewan and Ottawa during the 1980s and 1990s, Free Press journalist and author Bill Redekop launches his story in the spring of 2011 as Minot, N.D., is swamped by the Souris River.
Rafferty and Alameda were built to protect Minot but they failed. To Redekop, Minot's trauma typifies the "half-baked" reasoning that underlay the mega-projects.
The controversy dates back to the early 1980s. Unable to achieve a local solution for Minot's flooding woes, North Dakota lawmakers looked to newly elected Saskatchewan Premier Grant Devine for solutions.
Redekop is hard pressed to explain why Devine bit on Rafferty-Alameda but the political overtones are clear. The dams were situated within the southeastern Saskatchewan heartland of Devine and cabinet strongman Eric Berntson.
Neither man was tolerant of dissent. They "bulldozed" all opposition. Concerns regarding the loss of thousands of acres of upstream wetlands and a unique valley habitat were a mere sideshow on their path to progress.
A mega-project with unstudied downstream effects and involving international waters, migratory birds and federal lands would seem to demand a federal environmental assessment. But the independent review was not ordered.
Enter Elizabeth May. Formerly a senior aide to the federal minister of the environment, May resigned over Canada's failure to order an assessment. She set off a political firestorm with her allegations of a secret federal-provincial deal to bypass the independent review.
Against this explosive backdrop and standing in lonely legal opposition was a loose grouping of wildlife federations, landowners, environmentalists and those simply offended by "the arrogance of the developers and the dubious purposes of the dams."
In a series of legal challenges too lengthy to catalogue, these unlikely crusaders turned Canadian environmental law on its head. For the first time, Canadian courts recognized that federal environmental guidelines were legally binding. An environmental assessment was ordered. For a time, construction was stopped.
Standing humbly at the centre of the controversy were Ed and Harold Tetzlaff, bachelor brothers without telephone and cable but as enduring as bedrock.
"Their frugality, their humility, their complete disinterest in the supposed desires of the masses, spelled integrity," Redekop writes.
"Their motives seemed purer and their arguments more meaningful, as though drawn from antiquity instead of last week."
Facing the loss of 800 acres of land and the end of their way of life, the Tetzlaffs wrote the last chapters of an epic legal struggle:
"We made an attempt to keep things a little more honourable and straight for everyone," Harold tells Redekop.
"One set of laws for government and another set of laws for everyone else. That is not justice."
This story does not have a happy ending. The Saskatchewan government eventually got its way. The Tetzlaffs' valley is no more.
Redekop is perhaps too harsh in his assessment of a federal Court of Appeal decision that recognized the need for an environmental assessment but which declined to halt construction. While a more heroic judicial approach might have been desirable, responsibility for the debacle lies elsewhere.
Redekop also might be criticized for chapters that read well on their own but are only loosely connected. The byproduct is an occasional repetition of facts and anecdotes.
These modest criticisms are dwarfed by a story better than fiction.
Redekop's colourful writing may put off fervent Devine supporters but it is welcome change from sterile legal texts. This, after all, is a reporter who has published two books about Manitoba criminals.
For example, Minot's biggest claim to fame is "its armed and dangerous grain fields." The Rafferty-Alameda dams were "a half-baked political solution from the get-go" and "about front-end loader buckets dripping with cash."
He describes Berntson as "Grant Devine's Dick Cheney."
Dams of Contention careens at a scandal-a-minute pace. It celebrates a ramshackle coalition of farmers, hunters, environmentalists and, yes, even a few lawyers who profoundly changed Canadian environmental law.
Winnipeg lawyer Byron Williams grew up on a farm alongside the Souris River.
Dams of Contention
The Rafferty-Alameda Story and the Birth of Canadian Environmental Law
By Bill Redekop
Heartland, 283 pages, $25