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Devils Lake flood outlets slowed by wet weather

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A lingering wet weather pattern is stalling efforts to provide flood relief in the Devils Lake Basin this summer.

Two state-owned outlets currently are pumping at half of their total 600-cubic-feet-per-second total capacity, according to Todd Sando, state engineer with the State Water Commission.

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“It’s another very wet year,” he said, not just in the Devils Lake Basin, but throughout the state and the Northern Plains.

“We would be at record levels if we weren’t pumping,” he added, estimating the lake would be at about 1,454.8 feet, if it had no outlets.

Devils Lake remains about a foot lower than its record elevation of 1,454.4 feet above sea level — reached on June 27, 2011 — even after more than 330,000 acre-feet of water has been pumped out over the past three years.

The lake, which was at 1,453.44 feet Monday, has risen by more than 30 feet and has quadrupled in size in the past 20 years, as the region endures a long-range wet weather pattern.

Some $1.5 billion has been spent since 1993 to raise roads, lengthen and fortify levies, and improve other infrastructure to protect the Devils Lake Basin from flooding.

Devils Lake is not alone, either. Rivers are at record levels in several parts of the state this summer, including the Sheyenne, James and Souris river basins, according to Sando.

“There are lakes everywhere that are just super high,” he said. “We need a break in this. It seems there’s no drought in the forecast right now. It could be another tough year for water.”

Limited releases

In 2011 and 2012, the state expanded an outlet on the west end of Devils Lake and built a new outlet on the east end.

Releases from the outlets, which transfer water from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River, are limited during times of high water downstream.

The outlets, which normally operate from early May to late October or November, began running May 12 this year, but have been operating at less-than-full capacity ever since. Flows are monitored and adjusted, depending on rain events and river levels, according to the engineer.

 “The problem we’ve been running into early on is that in May and June we got so much rain, the rivers are at flood stage,” Sando said. “There’s flooding downstream. If it drops below bank capacity, we pump more.”

Despite the slow start for the outlets, Sando is hopeful that the lake elevation will drop by as much as 2 feet before freeze-up this year.

“We move most of our water in July through early November,” he said.

He estimates the outlets this year could remove about 142,000 acre-feet of water, which amounts to about 9 inches, from the lake, plus about one foot through evaporation.

That compares with record- or near-record inflows from the 3,810-square-mile basin of nearly 600,000 acre-feet in 2009, 2011 and 2013.

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1110 or send email tokbonham@gfherald.com.

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Kevin Bonham
Kevin Bonham covers news from northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native, who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for nearly 30 years. 
(701) 780-1110
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