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Kevin Bonham, Herald Staff Writer, Published May 03 2010

FEMA to revisit Devils Lake flooding

DEVILS LAKE – In 1995, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator James Lee Witt made the first of two tours of the Devils Lake Basin to see how the federal government could help the region recover from a two-year flood.

At the time, the National Weather Service listed a 1-in-10 chance that by 1996, the level of Devils Lake would exceed 1,438 feet above mean sea level, the highest since it reached 1,438.4 feet in 1867.

In 1996, then-Vice President Al Gore witnessed the flood, taking another eyewitness report back to then-President Bill Clinton.

At the time, nobody was talking about potential elevations of 1,450 feet.

In 2001, when then-FEMA Administrator Joe Albaugh toured the basin, the lake was at 1,446 feet, with another 2-foot rise expected in 2002.

When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tours the region today to headline a half-day Devils Lake Summit arranged by North Dakota’s congressional delegation, the lake will be at a record elevation of about 1,451.5 feet.

That’s more than 28 feet higher than it was in 1993, when the current wet cycle kicked into high gear. Since then, about $1 billion has been spent to fight the 17-year-old flood. More than 650 structures, including some 450 homes, have been moved or destroyed – some more than once – in the region because of the rising water.

The lake has tripled in size, swallowing about 10,000 acres of farmland with each 1-foot rise. A recent North Dakota State University study indicates the flood is costing the Devils Lake Basin’s agricultural economy about $83 million annually. Some farmers have lost 2,000 acres of prime farmland.

“We’re in the center of the trade area, but we’re losing the trade,” Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott said last week during a tour by Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “People all around us are losing their homes, their farms, their small businesses.”

“It almost has the effect of choking the commercial viability of the community,” added Scott Stofferahn, Sen. Kent Conrad’s eastern North Dakota director.

Nearing spill level

The lake now is just 6.5 feet away from 1,458 feet, the elevation at which it will spill naturally to the Tolna Coulee and the Sheyenne River, which runs into the Red River of the North, Lake Winnipeg and ultimately into Hudson Bay.

These days, people in the Devils Lake Basin no longer talk about “if” when referring to the lake overflowing. They say “when.”

Another $200 million will be spent over the next two years to raise major roads and to raise, fortify and lengthen a dike that will become a dam protecting the city of Devils Lake and its 7,000 residents.

The Devils Lake Basin never would have seen that kind of federal help, local officials said, if people in Washington hadn’t seen the phenomenon for themselves.

When they visit with the present FEMA administrator, they’ll lobby for a comprehensive plan for Devils Lake, Sen. Kent Conrad said.

Fugate will be accompanied on the tour by a large contingent of top-level federal agency officials. Here is a partial list of those who will participate in the summit:

They’ll tour by ground and by air. The two-hour summit will begin at 11 a.m. at Lake Region State College.

Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.