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Kevin Bonham / Forum Communications Co., Published January 14 2011

Devils Lake situation urgent: Possible 3-foot rise in already swollen lake has engineers scrambling

BISMARCK – A forecast 3-foot rise of Devils Lake this year has prompted a new sense of urgency among water engineers tasked with the finding a solution with the record flooding.

“We can’t keep up with another flood of record,” State Engineer Todd Sando testified before the North Dakota Senate Natural Resources Committee today. “We thought we had some time. We really need to move ahead as fast as we can.”

Sando was testifying on Senate Bill 2054, which would appropriate $5 million to design a controlled outlet on the east end of Devils Lake as well as increase capacity of the existing west-end outlet.

The discussion follows Gov. Jack Dalrymple’s emergency declaration Tuesday that seeks a presidential declaration to prepare for spring flooding.

Dalrymple’s emergency declaration covers Benson, Nelson, Ramsey and Towner counties and the Spirit Lake Tribe.

A presidential emergency declaration would start the disbursement of federal resources and money to help local governments and tribes prepare for what will likely be a substantial rise in the lake level this spring.

The governor’s budget contains $120 million for Devils Lake flooding measures, including the expansion of the west-end outlet from 250 to 350 cubic feet per second, the construction of a gravity-flow east-end outlet with a capacity of 250 cfs and an east-end control structure to avoid a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled release of water through Stump Lake and the Tolna Coulee to the Sheyenne River.

The National Weather Service forecasts a 50-50 chance that the lake will reach an elevation of 1,454.6 feet this year. The lake rose to a record 1,452.1 feet in 2010 and currently sits at about 1,451.6 feet.

The lake would spill over to the Sheyenne Valley at an elevation of 1,458 feet.

The lake has risen by 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, causing an estimated $656 million in damage to public infrastructure.

“We’re trying to get another 500 to 600 cfs out as fast as we can. We’re working on finding the best route,” he said.

Sando said the State Water Commission does not favor armoring Stump Lake to prevent a downstream release, adding that a controlled outlet would provide flood relief to people in the Devils Lake Basin, while still providing protection to people downstream.

The state’s budget proposal includes $15 million for a new reverse-osmosis water treatment plant at Valley City, located on the Sheyenne River, to improve water quality.

Sen. Connie Triplett, D-Grand Forks, wondered why the Senate Natural Resources Committee was even discussing the bill, saying it borders on micromanaging the State Water Commission.

“It’s important enough,” said Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee and chairs a new water-related topics overview committee, adding that some 44 percent of the state’s population lives downstream of Devils Lake.

“The real issue is loss of life,” said Rep. Curt Hofstad, R-Devils Lake, who submitted data from the North Dakota Department of Transportation indicating that six water-related traffic fatalities have occurred since 2005 in which vehicles have left Devils Lake-area roads.

Sen. Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, whose district also includes much of the Devils Lake Basin, said Stump Lake cannot be forgotten as the state seeks a solution. A proposed east-end outlet, somewhere near Jerusalem Coulee, which feeds Devils Lake into Stump Lake, could leave Stump Lake with the worst-quality water in the entire system.

“Stump Lake is a very important part of this,” she said.

Sen. Stanley Lyson, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee, said the bill might be too technical, by outlining a $5 million outlet project. He suggested it be amended to provide the State Water Commission more latitude in finding a solution.

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald.