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Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published May 30 2011

Buried under water: Cemeteries swallowed by rising Devils Lake

CHURCHS FERRY, N.D. – For the past 25 years, Sylvia Helgeseth has placed flowers at the gravesite of her first husband – and for many years before that at the plots of other relatives – at Antiochia Cemetery south of here for Memorial Day.

That tradition ended this weekend. Flooding has drowned or washed out roads and all access to this and dozens of other community cemeteries throughout the Devils Lake Basin.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever see those graves again,” she said. “This year, I’ll put some flowers at home, but it won’t be the same.”

Arden and Sylvia Helgeseth and their neighbors also mourned the loss of their church this weekend.

Zion Lutheran Church, which has been part of the Churchs Ferry community for more than a century, closed its doors after a farewell service Sunday.

Only a temporary dirt dike built by parishioners keeps the floodwaters of Devils Lake from inundating this church, one of the last remaining buildings in Churchs Ferry since the federal government initiated a $3.5 million flood acquisition program in 2000 as local families started moving away and the population dropped from 100 to just a handful.

Devils Lake, which has risen by more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, hit a record 1,454.2 feet above sea level Thursday. While the floor of the church is at 1,454.97 feet, water touches the building at 1,453.5 feet. The sewer system is already gone.

Today, many parishioners will visit Churchs Ferry Cemetery, built on a hill about three miles southeast of town and one of the few rural cemeteries in this part of the basin that remains accessible by road, to pay their respects.

But even this elevated cemetery is beginning to lose the battle. Ten gravestones are underwater or partially covered. They include some of the earliest burials, in the late 1800s, when European immigrants settled this land.

The waters of Devils Lake are encroaching on the pine tree border on three sides of the cemetery.

Arden Helgeseth, who serves on the cemetery board, used to farm the land directly south of the cemetery until he turned it over to a nephew in 2000. But there’s no land to farm there now.

“From the cemetery, as far as you can see, it’s water,” lamented church member Jeanette Rohrer.

The state has built one west-end outlet and is planning another one on the east end of the growing lake. But the proposed 700 cubic feet per second of water that would be drained is only about one third of the average amount running into the lake from the upper basin.

With the lake less than 4 feet from spilling naturally through the adjoining Stump Lake, the state now plans to build a water control structure on the Tolna Coulee to regulate flows, but only after the lake starts spilling on its own.

To allow larger flows earlier would risk a catastrophic flood downstream, in communities such as Valley City and Lisbon, N.D., and likely would prompt lawsuits, which would delay such a project, state officials say.

People living in the Devils Lake Basin say their homes and livelihoods are being sacrificed by the policy, with the lake rising an average of 2 feet, and growing by some 20,000 acres or more annually.

Last week, the city of Devils Lake, which owns the Tolna Coulee land where a control structure is proposed, threatened to block access to the property, saying the lake needs to be lowered this year, not allowed to rise any higher.

“They build up the roads and the dikes to protect the city of Devils Lake and to promote the fishing and recreation industry and the casino and let the rest of us go,” Joel Storsteen said. “If the state was going to build a new road, they’d move the graves, but they won’t do it to keep them out of the water.”

So instead of planning to visit the cemetery this Memorial Day, a few of them got together the other day to see what has been preserved and to reminisce.

They examined a quilt that the Andersons bought years ago at an auction. Stitched together by church ladies in 1942, it consisted of a series of circles, like wagon wheels, with the spokes containing the names of church members and friends and relatives who donated to the cause.

“If you wanted your name on it, you paid a dime,” Marjorie Anderson said, recalling that the project raised about $40. “In those days, that was a lot of money.”

Like her former neighbors, she hasn’t been able to visit the cemetery since 2009. It won’t be long, they said, before its all under water.

“That’s what’s so sad,” Marjorie Anderson said. “We want to be buried there, too.”

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald