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EPA ruling clears way for state to move more water off Devils Lake

North Dakota does not need approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to move more water off of Devils Lake,the state's congressional delegation announced Tuesday.

Devils Lake flooding
Herald file photo by Sarah Kolberg
Herald file photo

North Dakota does not need approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to move more water off of Devils Lake,the state's congressional delegation announced Tuesday.

The ruling will allow the state to increase controlled releases through the existing Devils Lake Outlet and another outlet planned on the eastern end of the lake, according Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan.

"As a result of this determination, the state now has considerable and immediate flexibility to operate the outlet as they best see fit," the senators said in a joint statement. "This news is a significant step forward in allowing for additional releases off the lake from the State outlet and through an east end outlet."

The state had been seeking EPA approval for either a permanent change or variance in water quality standards on the lower Sheyenne and Red rivers in order to increase controlled releases. However, when pressed by Conrad and Dorgan, the Obama Administration reviewed the issue and concluded that the State can proceed to move water without EPA approval.

The administration's decision is based on a 2008 ruling that allows for the transfer of raw water within the state from one water body to another without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit.


"EPA has confirmed this interpretation in conversations with our staffs," the senators said in a letter to Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson. "As a result, a permanent change or variance in water quality standards is not necessary."

The announcement comes just one day after officials from North Dakota, Manitoba, Washington and Ottawa agreed that more water needs to be moved out of Devils Lake in a controlled manner to prevent a potential catastrophic flood.

In the second in a series of four-party meetings in Washington, D.C., they agreed to expedite analysis of the effects of proposed outlet expansions on downstream water quality.

The officials did not specifically discuss the EPA regulations during their Monday meeting. However, Conrad said the Canadian leaders were assured that action to increase Devils Lake flows would take into consideration concerns of communities downstream, including those in Canada.

North Dakota and Manitoba also agreed to share data and expertise in a new effort to protect residents on both sides of the border from potential flooding in the spring of 2011, given the extremely wet conditions and high water levels throughout the Red River Basin.

All parties agreed that the worst-case scenario would be an uncontrolled release of the lowest-quality water through Tolna Coulee, a risk that would be mitigated by greater releases from areas of higher water quality. Water quality is at least 250 percent worse at Tolna Coulee than East Devils Lake.

Progress toward an integrated basin-wide nutrient management strategy was made with general agreement to identify current and potential measures to reduce nutrients in the Red River basin in cooperation with neighboring jurisdictions.

Devils Lake, which has quadrupled in size and risen by almost 30 feet the past 17 years, reached a record elevation of 1,452.1 feet in June, just about 6 feet from the level at which it would spill naturally out of Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee and the Sheyenne River, which flows into the Red River north of Fargo.


Since its peak this year, the lake has dropped to about 1,451.3 feet, and officials are forecasting it will freeze this winter at about or slightly above 1,451 feet. The lake has risen about 5 feet in the past two years.

Some engineering estimates say that if Devils Lake spills from its banks, the amount of water running toward downstream communities could be 14,000 cubic feet per second for almost 100 days. The peak flow of the Sheyenne River in Valley City during a major flood in 2009 was about 8,500 cfs.

In late October, the North Dakota State Water Commission approved spending $4.2 million for engineering to design new and bigger controlled outlets that could bring more relief to the chronically flooded lake within a year.

The money will be spent on three projects that ultimately could cost up to $50 million. The $4.2 million breaks down this way:

- $1.5 million to design a 100-cubic-feet-per-second expansion -- or parallel outlet -- to the existing 250-cfs west-end state-owned Devils Lake Outlet from Round Lake to the Sheyenne River.

- $2.2 million for a potential gravity outlet somewhere on East Devils Lake. Several potential routes will be studied.

- A $500,000 geotechnical analysis for some kind of a control structure to prevent an uncontrolled spill from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee, which runs into the Sheyenne River.

Once design is completed, the state would apply for necessary permits. State Engineer Todd Sando said a new and/or outlet could be operational within a year.


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

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