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Jack Zaleski, Published June 01 2013

Zaleski: A North Dakota water warrior dies

Gordon Berg died last week at age 85. He’d been ill for some time.

Who was Gordon Berg?

Fair question. A younger generation of North Dakotans does not know who he was. But we oldsters know Berg as a larger-than-life farmer/water warrior/legislator during his prime from the 1970s through the early 1990s. He farmed near Starkweather, north of Devils Lake, when the “water wars” were shootin’ wars. The enmity between farmers who wanted to drain wetlands and federal agencies that wanted to preserve them was as bitter and angry as never before or since.

Gordon Berg was a general in the wars. For many years, he was the general.

In the ’70s, I was a young reporter at the Devils Lake Daily Journal. I learned early that water was the most controversial topic I’d be covering. An untested New Englander, I had only a cursory understanding of farm drainage, wetlands and the conflict they stirred. Berg tried to educate me to his way of water. I was a quick study, but to Berg’s consternation, I listened to the other side, too. In his mind, there was no other side.

The Ramsey County Water Board was Berg’s vehicle for advancing a drainage agenda. The board pushed for the Starkweather Watershed Project, a system of ditches and control gates north of Devils Lake (the lake) that was designed to drain water off farmland as quickly as possible. It was vigorously opposed by wildlife agencies and conservation groups.

As the controversy escalated, I examined fine print in the enabling documents to establish an assessment district. Lo and behold, buried in the bureaucratize was a provision that said if revenue from the discrete assessment district did not cover costs of the vast project, then all property in Ramsey County and the city of Devils Lake would be assessed. I wrote about it. It was a bombshell in the water war. It helped sink the project.

Berg was furious. He stormed into the Journal office ready to tear my head off. He was a big man with a big voice. He could be intimidating. I, however, had the full support of my publisher, the late M.R. Graham, who had read the story and checked my source material. As Berg became more agitated, Graham, a former Golden Gloves boxer, stepped out of his office and urged Berg to leave. Berg balked and exploded in a litany of foul language about me and Graham’s newspaper. Graham grabbed Berg by the belt and shirt collar and manhandled him out the door onto the sidewalk.

Sputtering, Berg threatened a lawsuit and stomped off. Graham smiled and went back into his office without a word. I quit shaking, sat down and went to work on a story about Berg’s behavior, which never got into print. Graham was a fair man.

As for Berg, we became friends. In time, the world passed him by. Many of the conservation and wetland preservation policies he fought so hard to block became the law of the land.

I admired him because he stuck by his principles, even as the old ditch-and-drain practices he championed fell out of favor. He was focused and informed. He was a bulldog when he was selling his water beliefs, whether in my small newsroom or on the floor of the Legislature.

Over the years, we got along. Without Berg, my grasp of the water wars and the evolution of water policy would have been incomplete. He was a North Dakota original. He’ll be missed.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.