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Towns, residents deal with rising Devils Lake

DEVILS LAKE -- The measurements of Devils Lake are made in feet and in dollars. The feet represent the amount the lake has risen and the amount of available increases in the level before the lake overflows. The dollars represent the millions spen...

Rising water in Minnewaukan
The backstop for a softball diamond peers out over a stand of cattails in Minnewaukan, N.D. The rising waters of Devils Lake are encroaching on this town that was once several miles from the lake. The water is now less than 150 feet from the school. (John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun)

DEVILS LAKE -- The measurements of Devils Lake are made in feet and in dollars.

The feet represent the amount the lake has risen and the amount of available increases in the level before the lake overflows. The dollars represent the millions spent in keeping roads and other infrastructure above the rising waters.

The latest cost, a $6 million grant to build a new school at Minnewaukan, N.D., on higher ground, was announced last week.

"The architect will start the ball rolling in a couple of weeks," said Myron Jury, superintendent of the school. "We still have to buy the land but the goal is to have plans for the school this winter and start construction next spring. We could be in the new school by the fall of 2012."

The current school location, and all of Minnewaukan, is lakeshore property now. This compares to 1992, before the current wet cycle started the rise of the lake, when Minnewaukan residents had to travel 8 miles to reach the shores of Devils Lake.


"Right now the lake is 2 feet below the level of the gym floor," Jury said. "We'll be fine for this year and next year if they have the same kind of rise in level they had this year."

The lake lapping at the edge of town has flooded the football and softball fields, creating cattail-covered shallow water flats leading to the deeper water of Devils Lake. The rising water has forced the removal of some homes and caused concern for the city's water and sewer infrastructure.

"We're hoping the new school location across the highway may help the city stay together," Jury said. "It might create a little suburb above any possible high water mark."

But the $6 million grant for a new school is one of the smaller costs associated with Devils Lake's rise.

"There has been about $700 million in costs incurred dealing with the rising water," said Mike Grafsgaard, city engineer for Devils Lake.

Grafsgaard said those costs started in 1994 and included projected expenses for 2011. The biggest expense has been in raising roads out of the lake, which comes to about $342 million.

"Every major roadway leading to Devils Lake is under construction and will remain under construction for the next couple of years," Grafsgaard said. "Originally we started with incremental dikes and road raises and just stayed ahead of the lake. That wasn't very cost-effective."

Another major expense has been the levy system around the city of Devils Lake with a current price tag of $173 million.


"Right now we have about 8 miles of flood protection around the city and we're increasing that to 12 miles," Grafsgaard said. "We started building dikes, which were designed to hold back water for a period of time until the water goes down naturally. Now we're building our embankments as dams designed to hold back water permanently."

Those embankments keep Devils Lake dry. Grafsgaard said some of the streets in Devils Lake would be under as much as 22 feet of water if it weren't for the flood-protection system.

Grafsgaard said the lake continues to rise despite state efforts to pump some water to the Sheyenne River through the $42 million Devils Lake Outlet.

"We pump the water out of the west end of the lake because that is where the water quality is the best," he said. "Devils Lake is an enclosed basin so the water only exits by evaporation or now the outlet. That leaves the impurities in the lake."

The heaviest inflows to the lake come from the west meaning the water in that portion of the lake is the freshest and carries the least sulfates and other contaminants. Still, concerns for water quality in the Sheyenne limit outlet operations to about 200 days per year.

And operating the outlet is expensive.

"On the west end there are some major hills between the lake and the river," Grafsgaard said. "The pumping station has to lift the water over 200 feet in two stages to allow the water to flow down into the Sheyenne."

This means major energy costs to operate the four electric pumps -- two with 2,000 horsepower and the two with 1,500 horsepower -- in the system. Grafsgaard said electricity costs for pump operations are more than $10,000 per day.


Grafsgaard said he would like to see another outlet added to the middle portion of the lake. The water from that outlet would contain higher levels of sulfates than the western part of the lake but be lower than the sulfate levels from the east part of Devils Lake or Stump Lake.

"We need to balance flood control of Devils Lake with the water quality of the Sheyenne," Grafsgaard said.

This causes concerns for a grassroots organization, Save the Sheyenne, which is headquartered in Valley City, N.D.

"Sounds like they want to balance their flood control with our water quality," said William Moore, former biology professor at Valley City State University and president of Save the Sheyenne. "The trade-off is they've got bad water and they want to dump it off."

Moore said his group is concerned not only with the quality but the quantity of the water.

"The river is flowing high right now," he said. "The natural flow is about 500 cubic feet per second and they're already dumping 250 cfs in. The river really can't stand much more."

And Moore said the sulfates are currently the easiest water quality issue to measure. He also said levels of mercury and arsenic are present in Devils Lake that are not found in the Sheyenne.

"The best way to measure the health of a river is the diversity of its species," he said. "The Sheyenne is very healthy now. There should be absolutely no water from the East Bay of Devils Lake or Stump Lake going into the Sheyenne."


Grafsgaard said there is a possibility of Devils Lake reaching a level where it naturally flows into the Sheyenne through Tolna Coulee. The level of Tolna Coulee is currently 1,458 feet above sea level with a current lake level of about 1,452 feet. The city of Devils Lake recently purchased Tolna Coulee and was allowed to lower the land to the current level.

"We were allowed to lower the height of the land to the point where it was at statehood," Grafsgaard said. "If the water starts moving through the coulee it could wash out and actually allow more water to move down into the coulee and ultimately the Sheyenne."

Moore said his committee does recognize the lake may overflow into the Sheyenne.

"Both the city of Valley City and Barnes County have gone on record as requesting the Corps of Engineers armor the coulee at a level of 1,458 feet," he said.

One topic being discussed has more to do with semantics than the lake level: Is the situation at Devils Lake an emergency?

Todd Sando, head of the North Dakota Water Commission, said it will depend on any federal declaration if an emergency exists and what changes that means to the situation.

"Any emergency declaration will define what relaxation of the standards occurs," he said. "I wouldn't expect a complete elimination of water quality standards."

Whatever the changes in water quality, Grafsgaard hopes it leads to pumping more water out of Devils Lake.


"If you can't call a situation where we've spent $700 million protecting property and moved hundreds of homes and businesses and lost 140,000 acres of cropland an emergency, I don't know what is," Grafsgaard said.

Moore and Save the Sheyenne disagree.

"They want their cake and to eat it too," Moore said. "The big issue is to keep them from declaring it an emergency. If the Federal government signs off on that, they could dump any amount of any quality of water anywhere they want."

The Jamestown Sun and the Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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