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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 19 2011

Property owners air Tolna Coulee concerns

COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – People living upstream and downstream of the record Devils Lake agree time is running out to prevent an uncontrolled spill from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee and Sheyenne River.

But many find plenty wrong with a proposed $8 million to $14 million the natural spill elevation of 1,458 feet above sea level. Devils Lake, which has risen by more than 30 feet and more than quadrupled in size project to build a sheet-pile sill and control structure on the Tolna Coulee. It is designed to regulate flows from Stump Lake after it reaches since 1993, now is less than 4 feet from spilling over.

The North Dakota State Water Commission and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held two public meetings this week to invite comments on the plan, which calls for construction this winter and the project being operational by June 2012. Tuesday’s meeting was in Devils Lake and Wednesday’s gathering was in Cooperstown.

“We could be talking 4,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) in Valley City during the spring,” Valley City Mayor Bob Werkhoven said Wednesday, adding that he is worried about how much more water his city can manage. The Sheyenne River, which flows through the city, had peak flows of about 7,500 cfs in the record flood of 2009.

While the Tolna Coulee project is being designed to release a maximum of 3,000 cfs, typical flows would be in the hundreds, not thousands of cubic feet per second, according to Bill Csajko, project manager for the corps. And flows from that structure – as well as from the existing west-end Devils Lake outlet and the planned east-end outlet – would be controlled so they would not interfere with periods of high water or poor water quality downstream.

The west-end outlet, which can release a maximum of 250 cfs and likely will be expanded to 350 cfs next year, has not started running yet this year, because of high flows in the Sheyenne, according to Bruce Engelhardt, an engineer with the State Water Commission.

In a question-and-answer session that followed the corps’ presentation in Devils Lake on Tuesday night, people said the Tolna Coulee control structure/sill project protects only people downstream, while they continue to lose their homes and livelihoods.

The control structure, as designed, would not release water from Stump Lake until the elevation exceeds 1,458 feet. While it would prevent a catastrophic spill, it would allow for natural erosion to occur downstream of the structure. As it erodes, stop logs would be removed from the structure, allowing more water to flow.

“Eventually, we’d get to the point where the elevation would go down to about where we think the erosion would reach a new equilibrium,” Engelhardt said.

That elevation is projected to be about 1,450 feet, although it could be a bit higher or lower.

“Everybody agrees we need this, but it’s too high,” Nelson County Commissioner Dan Marquart, one of the organizers of a rally earlier this week at Tolna Coulee, said at Wednesday’s meeting. That group – Citizens United to Regain Equality – advocates lowering the level of the Tolna Coulee to provide relief sooner to upper basin residents.

David Lunde, who lives near the Sheyenne River southeast of Cooperstown, said the state’s efforts to control Devils Lake flooding are too expensive and fail to resolve the problem.

State officials acknowledged the current west-end outlet, which is not pumping yet this year because water is too high in the Sheyenne River, and the proposed east-end outlet will release just about one-third of the amount of water flowing into the lake. It will cost nearly $400,000 a month to operate.

The corps is accepting comments until about the end of May. A 30-day public review period tentatively is set for July.

Kevin Bonham is a writer for the Grand Forks Herald