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'Stump'ing for funds

Rural Nelson, Ramsey and Benson county residents have become accustomed to the inconvenience of longer drives. It's an issue of safety. Water or ice encroaching on roads has contributed to several fatal accidents in the Devils Lake Basin in the p...

Rural Nelson, Ramsey and Benson county residents have become accustomed to the inconvenience of longer drives. It's an issue of safety. Water or ice encroaching on roads has contributed to several fatal accidents in the Devils Lake Basin in the past few years.
- Joan Heckaman,D-New Rockford, N.D.

TOLNA, N.D. - An expanding Stump Lake has devoured 18 miles of county roads in the past years, as the lake elevation has risen 20 feet.

Nelson County (N.D.) residents are trying to stop it from consuming one more - a half-mile stretch of County Road 23. But they're at the mercy of the North Dakota Legislature.

"We've had to revamp the whole county road system the past few years," said Nelson County Commission Chairman Odell Flaagan. "We lost four farmsteads north of Tolna in the last couple of years. We've closed roads. We've moved roads. We've got major roads going under water. And the county doesn't have any money left to fix them."

A North Dakota Department of Transportation funding bill, HB1012, contains an amendment that would provide $550,000 to raise a 2,500-foot section of County Road 23, to keep it from going under water as Stump Lake stretches toward Rose Lake.

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County officials say the road's elevation is 1,452 feet. They want to widen the base and raise it to 1,455. However, the Department of Transportation says the road currently meets its safety standards and, therefore, has not budgeted any money for repairs.

State grant

Freshman Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, N.D., introduced the amendment, which calls for a $550,000 grant from the state's general fund to go toward critical road construction and infrastructure.

The amendment was added to the bill by a 24-23 vote, despite opposition from Sen. Bob Stenehjem, R-Bismarck, the Senate majority leader, and Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.

"We have tried in the past to restrain ourselves when it comes to us deciding what road projects we're going to do around the state," Holmberg said last week. "Once we start down this road, no matter what its height, it's going to continue."

A conference committee was appointed Tuesday. However, a hearing on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

Critical roadIf the road is not raised, it likely will go under water this year.

County Road 23 is a major link between Tolna and Doyon, N.D. Grain trucks constantly travel between the two communities, hauling grain from the Tronson Grain Co. elevator in Doyon to Tolna, where it is loaded onto unit trains.

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Farmers who used to drive five or six miles to get to Tolna now have to drive 10 or 15 miles. For Dan Marquart, a former Nelson County commissioner, the 11-mile trip has expanded to 22.

"It's tough on Tolna," Marquart said. "I used to get all of my fertilizer here. If I can't get it here because the road is under water, I'll have to go to Doyon or Lakota (N.D.)"

Another stretch of County Road 23, just south of Marquart's farm, likely will succumb to the lake within two weeks. The road passes through the connection between Devils Lake and Stump Lake.

County commissioners already have given up hope of saving that portion of the road. The $3 million price tag is too high for the county to bear, Flaagan said. The county would need a presidential disaster declaration in order to get matching funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So, more detour signs soon will be erected there.

Long drivesHeckaman says rural Nelson, Ramsey and Benson county residents have become accustomed to the inconvenience of longer drives. To her, it's an issue of safety, noting that water or ice encroaching on roads has contributed to several fatal accidents in the Devils Lake Basin in the past few years.

Many roads have disappeared under the rising Devils and Stump lakes, forcing county resident to take detours of five, 10 or sometimes 20 miles.

"If somebody has a heart attack and needs an ambulance, how long will it take to get to the hospital?" Heckaman asked. "I think $550,000 is a small amount to pay for something that might be life-threatening."

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