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Published December 10 2010

Forum editorial: Lake plan important downriver

What happens at Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota can have a significant impact on Fargo and southeastern North Dakota. The rising lake and saturated Devils Lake watershed are integral parts of the Red River Basin. The main connector is the Sheyenne River – the natural drain when the lake reaches a specific elevation. The prediction for next year indicates the lake will be only 5 feet (or less by some analyses) from natural overflow into the Tolna Coulee and the river. The river flows south from the lake area through Lake Ashtabula at Valley City and then begins a turn to the east and north through Lisbon, Kindred, Horace and West Fargo. It discharges into the Red north of Harwood.

In other words, the Devils Lake Basin cannot be isolated from the Red River’s vast drainage area. It’s all part and parcel of a complex hydrologic system that is wetter than it’s ever been in modern times. The lake, which set record elevations the last few years, is expected to reach yet another record high in 2011. That forecast is based on normal precipitation. If snowpack and rainfall are greater than long-term seasonal averages – as they have been for more than a decade – the predicted record lake level of 1,453 feet above sea level could be exceeded.

It took a while for officialdom outside of the Devils Lake area to grasp the potential for downstream devastation should the big lake spill out uncontrolled. Led by former Gov. John Hoeven’s focused determination, a west-end outlet was constructed a few years ago. It has functioned as designed, but the quickly rising lake has overwhelmed the outlet’s capacity.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s budget includes up to $120 million to add capacity to the west outlet, build another one further east on the lake chain, and armor the Tolna Coulee in order to control an uncontrolled discharge. The state’s congressional delegation has been pivotal in the drive to maximize operation of the west outlet by helping remove unnecessary federal water quality standards from the Sheyenne. The result of cooperation and coordination among local, state and congressional officials is an emerging plan that can manage the lake level.

The importance of taking the gigantic lake out of the Sheyenne River flood picture cannot be stressed enough. The latest major floods on the Sheyenne occurred without a drop of Devils Lake water. An uncontrolled spill into the river in the spring flood season could have devastating consequences for downstream cities, including Valley City, Fargo and West Fargo. Therefore, it clearly is in the interests of those cities and their legislators – indeed the entire state – to enthusiastically endorse the governor’s outlet project funding.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.