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Devils Lake, Valley City officials meet to discuss area flood control

TOLNA, N.D. -- City officials from Valley City, N.D., on Tuesday walked the marshy cattle pasture of the Tolna Coulee, which one day could be moving water from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River and through their community.

TOLNA, N.D. -- City officials from Valley City, N.D., on Tuesday walked the marshy cattle pasture of the Tolna Coulee, which one day could be moving water from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River and through their community.

Living about 100 miles downstream and after just finishing a major spring flood fight of their own, they wanted to know just what on Earth people from Devils Lake were talking about when they suggested last month that the Stump Lake spill level be lowered by 5 feet, to 1,453 feet above sea level.

The idea, according to those in Devils Lake, is to provide an emergency controlled release of Devils Lake floodwater to the Sheyenne River once the elevation reaches 1,453 feet, rather than an uncontrolled flood they believe would have dire consequences to people living downstream.

Geologists say Stump Lake has spilled through the Tolna Coulee to the Sheyenne more than once in geologic history.

"There are so many questions that we have that need to be answered," Valley City Mayor Mary Lee Nielson said. "Is this inevitable? "Water quality issues. Volume of water."

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She agreed to continue discussing flood issues and potential solutions, not just in the Devils Lake and Valley City areas, but throughout the basin.

The city of Valley City just this past weekend reopened the last area of Main Street that had been closed since March, when spring flooding wiped out much of that community's sewer system.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already has begun work on a $113 million project to raise flood protection for the city of Devils Lake from a flood elevation of 1,459 feet, the level at which it will spill naturally from Stump Lake.

The State Water Commission also is maintaining the Devils Lake Outlet on the west end of the lake. That outlet has had limited success in providing flood relief, but the state is working to expand its capacity.

By building a control structure on the east end of Devils Lake, at the Stump Lake outlet to the Tolna Coulee, taxpayers could save tens of millions of dollars by not being required to raise the city embankment quite so high, according to City Engineer Mike Grafsgaard.

City officials said they have no cost estimates for the proposed project. They also have to study issues such as the amount of flow that could safely be sent through the Tolna Coulee to the Sheyenne.

"It's just a concept at this point," Grafsgaard said.

The city of Devils Lake already has purchased land along the Tolna Coulee and is about 80 percent finished with a project to remove about 1 foot of sediment from the coulee, which runs between Stump Lake and the Sheyenne River. That would lower the spill elevation to 1,458 feet.

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Devils Lake and Stump Lake have been connected for more than two years and are at about the same elevation.

That project alone is estimated to save $10 million to $20 million from the cost of the new Devils Lake city embankment, according to Grafsgaard.

Devils Lake rose by about 3.7 feet this year, reaching a record 1,450.78 feet -- more than 1½ feet higher than the previous mark set in 2006.

The National Weather Service recently forecast that Devils Lake would rise to somewhere in the 1,450.3-feet to 1,453.9-feet range in 2010. That's only about 5 feet below a natural, uncontrolled spill.

In Devils Lake, civic leaders already are preparing for the worst.

"Years ago, they said the lake would never go to 1,440. 1,450? Impossible," Devils Lake City Commissioner and Ramsey County Emergency Manager Tim Heisler said. "There's no storage left in the upper basin. So, it's not unimaginable that it'll reach 1,459 feet. The thing is we have some time to plan. But we have to plan."

Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott promised to bring city officials from other downstream communities to get a firsthand feel for the lay of the land.

"And we need to come down there to see what you're dealing with," Bott said. "A large part of this is fact-finding," he said. "We want to bring our neighbors here to open a dialogue, to deal with areas of disagreement. We never expected a flood like this."

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Nielson said Valley City-area residents would like to see a thorough basinwide hydrological study of the problem and potential solutions.

"We are connected to you," she told Devils Lake officials, "and we want to know."

"The main point is to control and manage water, rather than roll the dice and take a chance on what might happen," Grafsgaard said.

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

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