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Barnes County to N.D.: Do not rush Devils Lake flood solution push

While Gov. Jack Dalrymple is pressing the accelerator on plans to build a water control structure on Devils Lake, some officials downstream of the flooded basin are calling for the state to slow down.

Devils Lake
N.D. Highways 57 and 20 are ribbons in the water as they lead to Spirit Lake Casino and Marina. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is raising both roads again this year, to continue to provide access to and from the city of Devils Lake and Spirit Lake Nation. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

While Gov. Jack Dalrymple is pressing the accelerator on plans to build a water control structure on Devils Lake, some officials downstream of the flooded basin are calling for the state to slow down.

The Barnes County Commission will consider a resolution next week to place a moratorium on any new or expanded Devils Lake outlets or other flood-control measures until comprehensive studies are completed to show the potential impacts of increased water flow to the Sheyenne River.

The North Dakota State Water Commission plans this year to expand the capacity of the existing west-end outlet from 250 cubic feet per second to 350 cfs, to build a new 250-cfs outlet somewhere along East Devils Lake, and to construct a control structure to manage flows from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River.

"What we need here is for people to stand up for what is right. We need to discuss the long-term situation of Devils Lake and the total cost to all affected communities," said Barnes County commissioner Phil Leitner, who, along with fellow commissioner John Froelich, wrote the draft resolution

The County Commission presented the draft resolution to the Valley City City Commission during a special meeting Monday. The Valley City commission took no action on the resolution.


The governor this week ordered an emergency waiver to allow immediate design and construction of a water control structure at Tolna Coulee. That could shorten by about two months the State Water Commission's timetable in selecting a design and contractor to build the structure that Dalrymple calls "critical" in alleviating flooding in the Devils Lake Basin and protecting downstream communities.

Tolna Coulee is a natural outlet into the Sheyenne River, which joins the Red River near Fargo. The Sheyenne runs through the cities of Valley City, Lisbon and Fort Ransom before emptying into the Red River just north of Fargo.

Devils Lake, which has risen by about 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993 and reached a record elevation of 1,451.1 feet in 2010, is projected to rise another 2 to 3 feet this year, based on an early outlook by the National Weather Service. The lake fell to a low elevation of 1,451.24 feet in November, but the ice-covered lake has risen almost a half-foot since then, to 1,451.71 feet Sunday. It was at 1,451.68 feet Tuesday.

It is projected that the lake will spill naturally from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee at an elevation of about 1,458 feet.

At 250 cfs, the existing west-end outlet can release about 100,000 acre-feet of water in its seven months of operation annually, while average inflows to Devils Lake total about 240,000 acre-feet.

Leitner noted that about $1 billion has been spent on flood protection measures in the Devils Lake Basin in the past 18 years.

"What we don't know is how much this will cost downstream," he said. "Until we identify that cost, I'm not in favor of this proposal."

Any discharges from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River could affect roads, bridges and other infrastructure in Barnes County and other downstream areas, he said.


Leitner lived in Devils Lake part time in 2008 and 2009 while teaching on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, which has lost houses, roads and thousands of acres to the rising lake.

"I feel I was part of the community," he said. "I'd like to say I'm not against Devils Lake. I'm for Barnes County."

Valley City Mayor Bob Werkhoven said the city stands by its previous position on Devils Lake, which both acknowledges the threat of a Devils Lake overflow and supports actions to prevent catastrophic downstream flooding while preserving water quality standards at Valley City and in other downstream communities.

"Things are moving pretty fast on the Devils Lake issue," he said. "But as far as the resolution is concerned, we sure don't want that water going through the Tolna Coulee without some controls.

"With all the snow we've had this winter and with the flood forecasts, our top priority is working about the Sheyenne River this spring, excluding anything that might come from Devils Lake."

While Leitner would not predict whether the full Barnes County Commission will approve the resolution, he said, if passed, it would be sent to the governor's office, the State Water Commission, the state's congressional delegation, state legislators and to upstream and downstream communities.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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