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Despite new Devils Lake outlets, support remains for Tolna Coulee releases

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Lee Williams, right, and Keith and Darlene Forde lost most of their original farms after the flooding Devils Lake spilled into Stump Lake more than a decade ago. They are among the Devils Lake residents advocating the use of the natural outlet of Devils Lake from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee to help lower the lake elevation and provide addtiional relief to beleaguered residents. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

TOLNA, N.D. -- Devils Lake Basin officials are renewing a campaign to allow water from Stump Lake to flow naturally to the Tolna Coulee, even though more than $100 million has been spent in the past decade to build outlets that pump a maximum of 600 cubic feet of water per second to the Sheyenne River about five months a year.

"People in the basin are in agreement that water should be flowing out of the natural outlet," Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource District, said late last week.

The idea is to clean out the Tolna Coulee, to allow Stump Lake water to flow at an elevation lower than 1,458 feet above sea level, which former State Engineer Dale Frink established in 2004 as the baseline elevation. The level was set after engineers and geologists determined that was the elevation in 1889, the year North Dakota became a state.

Besides helping to ease flood problems throughout the 3,810-square-mile basin, it gradually would help to refresh the waters of Stump Lake, which has the lowest-quality water in the Devils Lake system, according to Frith.

The releases would be measured, through the $9 million Tolna Coulee Control Structure, which essentially is a dam designed to prevent an uncontrolled, catastrophic overflow from Stump Lake to the coulee.

"The pumps are great, and we're appreciative of the efforts made by the state and federal governments," he said. "We're very fortunate they've been running for the past two seasons. But we need more."

Staying ahead

Devils Lake has risen by more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993. Some $1.5 billion has been spent to raise roads, raise and lengthen levies, and improve other infrastructure to protect the basin from flooding.

The lake elevation hit a record elevation of 1,454.3 feet in 2011.

Devils Lake was at 1,452.62 feet Friday. That's 1.7 feet lower than the record elevation of 1,454.3 feet set in June 2011.

However, the lake currently is more than a foot higher than the 1,451.3 elevation at freeze-up in 2012.

Together, the east and west outlets drained about 157,500 acre-feet of water off of the combined Devils Lake and Stump Lake in 2012.

That amounts to about eight-tenths of a foot, according to Bruce Engelhardt, an engineer with the State Water Commission and Devils Lake project manager. Evaporation accounts for the rest of the lake's lower elevation since 2011.

The combined outlet annual discharge is slightly more than one-fourth of the annual inflows from the Devils Lake Basin in three of the past five years. Record inflows of nearly 600,000 acre-feet were recorded in 2009 and 2011.

This year is likely to be the third-highest on record, surpassing 1997's 522,000 acre feet, according to Engelhardt.

At 1,452.62 feet, the combined Devils and Stump lakes cover about 188,673 acres and contain about 3,831,535 acre-feet of water.

In 1993, Devils Lake had a surface area of 44,230 acres.

Continuing protest

Hundreds of Devils Lake Basin residents and officials attended a rally more than two years ago at the Tolna Coulee to protest the state's $100 million plan to build the east-end outlet and control structure.

"Gravity is free," they said as they advocated using the natural outlet from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee. All it would have taken, they said, would be to lower a ridge just to the southwest of Stump Lake to an elevation.

That's precisely what the Devils Lake joint water board is promoting again.

It costs a total of about $500,000 per month, mostly in electricity, to operate the east and west end outlets, according to Engelhardt.

"That's about $17,000 a day," said Lee Williams, whose farm home is under Stump Lake.

Some who have lost land to the flooding Stump Lake remain bitter today, saying the cost isn't justified. They say that money could be used to compensate basin landowners for lost income.

Williams has lost about 400 acres of land, virtually all of it in the federal Conservation Reserve Program, to the flooding. His original home sits on the bottom of Stump Lake.

Keith and Darlene Forde lost nearly 800 acres.

"I have five acres left where my farm was," Keith Forde said.

They moved their house to other property to the south.

The land they lost came no longer is in CRP, because the contract expired last year. It's no longer eligible for the program because it's under water, Forde said. "I lost everything and they're still taxing the hell out of me."

Nelson County, like others in the Devils Lake Basin, has lowered property taxes for flood-inundated tillable land, from a range of about $750 to $900 per quarter to about $35, according to Odell Flaagan, county commission chairman.

But Williams and Forde have lost the ability to earn any income.

"What we'd like is for the state to buy us out," Williams said.

In the meantime, they advocate using the natural outlet, and allowing water to run through the Tolna Coulee control structure.

"The more water that flows out, the cleaner it is going to get," Flaagan said.

Tall order

Lowering the Tolna Coulee elevation might not be an easy task, however. It would require a full federal environmental impact study, according to Engelhardt.

Devils Lake officials are looking for another way to resolve that issue, according to Frith.

The basin water resource district plans to investigate whether any other agencies or organizations have studied that 2004 ruling, to see precisely how the 1,458-foot elevation was determined, he said.

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," he said. "We'd look to find somebody independent to look at it, to see if it's been investigated before. Maybe that's not the optimum elevation. Then, from there, maybe we can ask the state for a new state engineer's opinion on it."

Call Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1110; or send email to

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, 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 more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.