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Devils Lake pump hoped to allow time for permanent fix

The battle against the relentless rise of Devils Lake might just have entered a new phase with the flip of a switch. For a little more than five weeks, since June 28, the outlet built to remove water from the lake has been pumping at 2 1/2 times ...

The battle against the relentless rise of Devils Lake might just have entered a new phase with the flip of a switch.

For a little more than five weeks, since June 28, the outlet built to remove water from the lake has been pumping at 2½ times the original volume.

North Dakota officials hope the extra pumping capacity -- now 250 cubic feet per second -- will allow time to implement a permanent solution to prevent the lake from spilling into the Sheyenne River.

If the pump can keep working at full capacity, officials believe it can lower Devils Lake by 8 to 12 inches -- unless heavy rains intervene.

"There's a full-court press to get it done," Lance Gaebe, an aide for Gov. John Hoeven, said of the push to avoid a possible spillover.


Pumping around the clock

Since the expanded outlet started pumping, it has worked continuously except for one night when a lightning storm temporarily disrupted power, Gaebe said.

"It's very encouraging," he added. "It is a turning point."

Besides extra pumping power, new water-quality standards allowing higher levels of sulfates in the Sheyenne River from Devils Lake have enabled the outlet to remove more water.

Until the changes, the outlet's performance had been meager, constrained by water-quality standards and weather conditions.

Since it started running in 2005 through last year, the outlet had removed a total of 29,231 acre-feet of water, the vast majority coming in 2009, when it removed 2 inches of water from Devils Lake.

That total is dwarfed by the volume of water flowing into the lake in recent years. Last year, for instance, heavy snowfall and rains added 590,000 acre-feet of water to the lake.

"That's when we get overwhelmed," said State Engineer Todd Sando. "If we get a big year, we can't keep up."


Now, with hot summer weather and added pumping capacity, "we're getting close to keeping up with the inflow," he said.

Since the wet period began in 1993, inflows into Devils Lake have averages about 240,000 acre-feet a year -- compared with an average of 33,000 acre-feet from 1990 to 1993.

In a hot summer, evaporation can remove 100,000 acre-feet, Sando said, an amount the enhanced outlet now could match if conditions allow.

Pumping costs much more than evaporation, with electricity to run the pumps costing about $1 million a year, projected to double with the expanded capacity.

Devils Lake, which has risen more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size in recent years, is fluctuating at an elevation of about 1,452 feet above sea level.

That's 6 feet below the level at which Devils Lake begins spilling into Tolna Coulee, which flows into the Sheyenne River, threatening downstream cities including Valley City and Lisbon, N.D.

A federal task force convened by the White House at the urging of North Dakota's congressional delegation faces an early September deadline to deliver its recommendations to prevent a spillover.

Separately, state officials are pursuing their own plans, with efforts focused simultaneously on:


- Exploring ways to further expand the outlet's pumping capacity, including modifications to allow winter pumping.

- Planning for a control structure on the east end of Devils Lake, to allow managed water releases into the Sheyenne River.

- Pushing for a further relaxation of water-quality standards to allow more lake water to flow into the Sheyenne -- a move that faces opposition by Canadians, and must be balanced against higher water treatment costs for downstream communities.

- Searching for other possible locations to move water off the east end of the lake, where topography could allow gravity -- rather than pumps -- to do most of the work.

Control structure could be built

An interim legislative committee headed by Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, is preparing draft legislation to construct a control structure capable of removing up to 1,000 cubic feet per second from the lake's east end.

That would be four times the capacity of the current outlet on the west end, which is lower in sulfates and other dissolved solids than the east end, where the natural outlet begins to spill at an elevation of 1,458 feet.

State officials are casting a wide net in their search for a solution.


For instance, engineers are exploring whether other rivers besides the Sheyenne -- including the Goose, Forest and Pembina -- could be used to remove water from Devils Lake.

Similarly, engineers are looking at the possibility of using Black Slough and Jerusalem Coulee on the east end of Devils Lake to remove water -- along with the possibility of "winterizing" the existing outlet on the west end.

"Everything's a potential solution," Sando said. "Those are all options."

Soon, Fischer said, the time for study will have to end, and significant steps will have to be taken to prevent a possible catastrophic, uncontrolled release of water down the Sheyenne.

"There's been a lot of study and a lot of this and that, but not much action," he said. "Have we waited too long?" he asked, noting the lake repeatedly has defied predictions.

With the current enhanced outlet, officials calculate Devils Lake has about a 7 percent chance of overflowing by 2019, with a higher chance of overflowing over a longer time horizon.

"There's a possibility we could get a foot off the lake this year," Sando said, providing the weather cooperates. "If it would just stop raining."

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are owned by Forum Communications Co.

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