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Flood fight to come to Devils Lake, Spirit Lake Indian Reservation

ST. MICHAEL, N.D. -- Come July, highway construction crews will be in a race with the rising waters of Devils Lake on roadways that are acting as dams on Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Devils Lake

ST. MICHAEL, N.D. -- Come July, highway construction crews will be in a race with the rising waters of Devils Lake on roadways that are acting as dams on Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Several Bureau of Indian Affairs roads will be raised 2 to 3 feet, to an elevation of 1,455 feet above sea level.

The lake, which has risen more than 25 feet in the past 15 years, was nearing a record 1,450 feet this week. The National Weather Service forecasts the lake will rise to at least 1,451.3 feet by mid-summer.

"The St. Michael area will get hurt," said Joe Belford, downstream acceptance coordinator for the North Dakota State Water Commission. "The roads, the lagoon and other infrastructure will be threatened."

The BIA and tribe hope to minimize damage through a road construction project that likely will cost $40 million $60 million over the next two years, said Paul Lee, of Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson, a Devils Lake engineering firm working with the tribe.


The Federal Highway Administration recently approved $42 million in funding for the project. That money supplements $26 million in emergency relief issued to North Dakota earlier this year to raise and reinforce key roads and levees in the Devils Lake Basin by as much as 5 feet.

Lee said the company is finishing the design for this summer's work. He expects the project to be bid by mid- to late-June, with construction beginning in July. The jobs are expected to go to local and regional contractors.

Ronny Hartl, assistant North Dakota administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, described the problem in the St. Michael and Camp Grafton areas in testimony submitted in 2008 before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development.

"Although roads in the Devils Lake flood area were not constructed to serve as dams, since 1995 the State and BIA road segments have been functioning as dams," he wrote. "These segments are protecting other roadways, land and homes."

The road projects are split into four zones, three at Spirit Lake and one along N.D. Highway 20-57 in the Acorn Ridge/Camp Grafton areas south of the city of Devils Lake. The three reservation zones will begin this summer.

The Acorn Ridge/Camp Grafton project, which is being done by the North Dakota Department of Transportation, is scheduled for 2010.

The work this summer will include two emergency projects, near St. Michael and at Spring Lake Dam, both on the reservation, according to Lee.

BIA 1, which runs from N.D. Highway 57 to St. Michael, will be raised to 1,455 feet. By 2010, new culverts in the road will equalize the water on both sides.


BIA 4 and 5 also are roads acting as dams. They'll be reinforced to serve as dams while still being used as roads.

"It's cheaper to build a dam to protect the roads than to build a road to act as a dam," Lee said.

The tribe and state transportation officials also are seeking additional funding to raise major roads to an elevation of 1,460 feet.

Part of the Red River Basin which spans 28 million acres of land and water in Canada and the north-central United States, Devils Lake is the largest natural body of water in North Dakota. Because of heavy rains and snow over the past 16 years, the lake has quadrupled in size and inundating hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland. In 2003, it forced the relocation of the community of Churchs Ferry, N.D.

Since the 1960s, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Devils Lake has risen almost 50 feet, well surpassing lake levels recorded back in the 1870s. It is expected to rise another 5 to 10 feet during the next decade, threatening area roads and levees.

"We owe it to the people of North Dakota and the Spirit Lake Nation to make sure they can get to their homes, work and school safely," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said when the funding was approved. "These funds will help get the community on the road to recovery."

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