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Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald , Published April 25 2012

Riding the ruts: The hazards of getting to school in the Devils Lake area

SOUTHAM, N.D. — As Doug Miller pulls Devils Lake School District Bus No. 12 into a driveway to pick up second-grade student Ethan Desjarlais, he notices a Chrysler minivan approaching from the north, about a half-mile away.

“That’s the Stubbes,” he said. Quentin and Malcolm Stubbe live on a farmstead about a mile north and east from the Desjarlais family home.

“They meet the bus here a lot of times,” Miller said. “I can’t always get the bus through there.”

Although driving the school bus route from Devils Lake to Southam and Crary isn’t quite as hazardous this spring as it has been the past three years, water-covered and frost boil-marred gravel roads still present a challenge for Miller and other school bus drivers in this basin that has seen record flooding for much of the past two decades.

“Last year was miserable,” he said. “We did a lot of pulling buses out of the snowbanks,” he said.

Detours have become part of the job for Miller and other bus drivers.

“Even now, I take a four-mile detour to get to one family,” he said. “I pick her up and then double back, because the main road is still underwater."

Passing another closed road, he adds, “I don’t think they’ll ever fix that road up. I think the families out there like it that way. They take their own kids to school.”

Some 800 to 900 students — about half of the enrollment — travel by school bus in Devils Lake School District, which stretches about 20 or 25 miles in every direction.

That’s a drop of 200 to 300 rural students in the past five or six years, according to Tom Dion, school district transportation director.

“It’s not only the lake, it’s the sloughs,” he said. “Pretty much in every direction, the sloughs have overcome many roads. We’ve been losing roads, shutting down routes or combining them with others. In the Penn area, we hardly have any students anymore. It’s all underwater.”

The school district, which currently has 17 bus routes, has a policy of not driving buses through water.

The district’s transportation department has the telephone number of all residents on the routes, relaying messages by radio to bus drivers as conditions change. Some families have telephone numbers of the drivers, too.

Devils Lake, which has risen by nearly 32 feet and quadrupled in size since 1992, was at an elevation of 1,453.5 feet above sea level on Wednesday. That’s down from a record 1,454.4 feet in June 2011.

The lake has spread from about 46,230 surface acres to more than 200,000 acres in the past 20 years.

This spring, 10 rural roads on current bus routes either are underwater or have become too soft to support the weight of school buses, according to Superintendent Steve Swiontek.

Five families currently living in rural areas no longer have access to school buses, while another two drive their children to meet the bus, he said.

Those numbers compare with 30 to 40 roads underwater and 10 families who met the school buses in 2011.

While that’s an improvement over previous years, it’s still cause for concern.

“Last year, we had one bus almost run off the road,” Swiontek said. “That’s a real safety issue.”

In addition to safety, the enduring flood costs money. Because flooded land is taxed at discounted rates, the district is dealing with decreased revenue.

While Ramsey and Benson counties have raised many flooded roads in the past year, poor conditions in other areas have increased wear and tear on district buses, according to Swiontek.

“I tore a mud flap off the bus a few days ago, backing up to turn around,” Miller said. “But at least I didn’t get stuck.”

The district’s bus fleet is traveling an extra 150 miles per day, and an average of about 30 additional minutes of riding time per trip.

“We’ve been able to adjust, to change things and get back on course,” Swiontek said. “But it’s a constant challenge.”

Miller, driving toward Devils Lake with 18 students on board one morning this week, said the number often swells to 25 for the afternoon trip.

“It’s pretty relaxed, really,” he said, “especially in the morning. It’s a lot crazier in the afternoons, when they’re all wound up. But at least we don’t have to deal with so much water this year.”