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Conrad seeks ideas on plan of action for Devils Lake flooding

DEVILS LAKE -- A federal interagency working group will begin visiting the Devils Lake Basin next week to talk with people in an effort to meet a September deadline for a plan of action to deal with the chronic flooding and threat of an uncontrol...

Kent Conrad

DEVILS LAKE -- A federal interagency working group will begin visiting the Devils Lake Basin next week to talk with people in an effort to meet a September deadline for a plan of action to deal with the chronic flooding and threat of an uncontrolled spill to the Sheyenne River.

Toward that end, Sen. Kent Conrad sought local ideas Thursday during a field hearing of the Senate Budget Committee on how the federal government can help.

The short answer from local and state officials was: Move more water from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne through a controlled release.

"We're dealing with a ticking time bomb here in Devils Lake," Conrad said. "We are just a couple of heavy rains away from a possible uncontrolled overflow. That could have a devastating impact on the Lake Region and on downstream communities as well. We need to work together to avert this pending disaster."

Another hearing is today in Valley City, N.D., a city of 6,800 on the Sheyenne River. Conrad and other officials are likely to hear vocal opposition to any plan that calls for releasing more water from Devils Lake.


A group calling itself the Downstream Residents Opposed to More Devils Lake Water, plans to hold a news conference after today's hearing in Valley City.

Devils Lake has risen by more than 50 feet in the past 70 years and by nearly 30 feet since 1993, hitting a modern-day record of 1,452.1 feet above sea level on June 27. The lake has more than quadrupled in size in the past 17 years.

Currently, the lake is just about 6 feet below the elevation at which engineers and geologists say it will spill over the banks of the connected Stump Lake.

From there, the water would flood the Tolna Coulee, then to the Sheyenne, threatening communities of Lisbon and West Fargo before emptying into the Red River north of Fargo.

"It's clear we are in uncharted territory," Conrad said.

Todd Sando, acting state engineer, pointed out that from 1950 to 1992, the average annual inflow of water into Devils Lake from the upper basin was about 33,800 acre-feet.

In 1993, the region received nearly 50 inches of rain, and the wet cycle has continued.

Since then, the average inflow has averaged about 243,700 acre-feet.


"The inflow is seven times greater than it had been," he said. "That's very significant."

He pointed out that the National Weather Service estimates a 72-percent chance that the present wet cycle will continue for another decade.

"Then, it doesn't just shut off. We're in a real critical period," he said. "We have to lay out as clearly as we can what it's going to cost to take care of this."

The senator outlined several potential options to address what he called the Devils Lake flooding disaster.

n Continue to raise roads and the levee protecting the city of Devils Lake; relocate threatened structures and other infrastructure protection. The federal government has allocated more than $700 million for infrastructure improvements over the past 17 years. State and local investments, as well as loss of private property, have pushed the total to $1 billion.

- Maximize operation of the state outlet on the west end of the lake. The state recently expanded the outlet from 100 cubic feet per second to 250 cfs. The state's total investment in the outlet now is about $40 million.

- Build an east-end outlet and/or control structure to release water via the Jerusalem or Tolna coulees.

- Relocate or build permanent flood protection for the flood-threatened city of Minnewaukan, N.D., which has about 300 residents.


- Search for more water storage in the upper basin.

- Find ways to discharge more water from the west end of the lake.

Sando broke it down to three recommendations, seeking federal help to:

- Relax state standards and limits on sulfate levels allowed in the Sheyenne - without threatening health or the environment.

An emergency rule, effective in May, raised the level of allowed sulfates in the upper Sheyenne, above Baldhill Dam on Lake Ashtabula 12 miles north of Valley City, from 450 to 750 milligrams per liter, but leaves the level below Baldhill Dam at 450.

The sulfate content level remains within acceptable water quality standards, officials said. Sulfates are a natural laxative and, in higher concentrations, can affect the taste and odor of water. Sulfates can be treated with water purification systems, such as reverse osmosis, but it is costly.

- Provide quick funding of recommendations made by the Devils Lake interagency working group.

- Help to move more water, either from the west end of the lake, or from the east end.


Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson offered four recommendations:

- Take water from both the east and west ends of the lake and blend it to improve water quality before it moves downstream.

- Build a control structure to manage water releases from Devils Lake or Stump Lake.

- Widen channel capacities to allow more water to move downstream.

- The federal government to provide enough money to local municipalities, including counties, cities, townships and Spirit Lake Nation, to mitigate damage to infrastructure.

Minnewaukan Mayor Trish McQuoid called on the federal government to provide money to relocate the city, or a portion of the city, before the lake swallows the community.

"We basically are dying a slow death," she said. "If we could relocate, our town can grow. We can regain some of the tax base that we've lost."

Myra Pearson, chairwoman of Spirit Lake Nation, said money has been wasted over the past decade.


"Shame on us for not demanding a permanent fix for the problems that we've created for ourselves," she said. "We need to do something, but we also should respect Mother Nature. Waiting another decade is simply not an option."

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