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ND to lower Devils Lake level

Northeast North Dakota is trying to avert more damage from a rising lake.

BY HEATHER MOYER | DEVILS LAKE, N.D. | August 10, 2005

"This is throwing money away."

—Milt Sauer

Northeast North Dakota is trying to avert more damage from a lake that's rising on its own.

Since Devils Lake has no natural outlets, it fluctuates from dry to overflowing based solely on climate patterns, according to the North Dakota Geological Survey. The overflowing lake has destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, as well as flooded thousands of acres of farmland over the years.

According to the North Dakota State Water Commission (NDSWC), the lake is currently in a stage of rising, and in April of this year it reached a level only one foot below its recent record high level hit in 2004. The NDSWC says Devils Lake has risen more than 25 feet since 1993 and now covers 134,000 acres.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says the price tag for all the damage done by Devils Lake flooding is close to $300 million. The NDSWC says the price tag from all the state and federal mitigation projects hit $450 million recently. So state officials recently turned on the pumps.

The "outlet," as officials are calling it, is aimed at pumping enough water out of the lake to stop the rising. The outlet pumps the water into the Sheyenne River.

"The outlet was operated last week as a pump test," said Dale Frink, the state engineer for North Dakota. "We will probably go into full operation next week."

Frink said the pumps remove water from Devils Lake at a rate of 50 cubic-feet-per-second for now, but that rate will be increased to 100 cubic-feet-per-second next year.

This outlet plan has been in development since 1997, but the pumping did not begin until just last week. The plan's development has been marked by years of struggle with local activists and even the government of the Canadian province of Manitoba.

Local environmental groups say the plan is not cost-effective and that the state has not considered all of the environmental risks.

"This is something that shouldn't be done," said Milt Sauer, chairman of People to Save the Sheyenne River.

"This is throwing money away and doing nothing. The figures aren't correct in the studies they used - the water is higher now than it was several years ago (when their studies were done). So as the lake grows, it will become absolutely insignificant. It won't do anything to stabilize or retard it or anything."

Sauer also worries about the effect the lake's biological organisms will have on the Sheyenne River's watershed. He says the filter in place for these pumps is not sufficient.

The water pumped into the Sheyenne River then moves into the Red River, which travels north into Manitoba and then Lake Winnipeg. The biological organisms are a major reason the Manitoba government took issue with the outlet plan.

"Our concern was that because Devils Lake was isolated and had not contributed water to the basin in some 10,000 years, there are organisms in the lake that are not in our system," said Dwight Williamson, director of the water science and management branch of the Manitoba Water Stewardship Department.

Williamson said that because Devils Lake fluctuates based on climate patterns, the instance in the early 1990s when water was brought into it from the Missouri River exposed the lake to organisms not found in their water system. "There were a number of known organisms in the Missouri River that we did not want in ours," he explained.

He added that Lake Winnipeg is also experiencing a problem with too many nutrients, and that further water from Devils Lake would only make that worse.

Yet last week the Manitoban government was able to reach an agreement with North Dakota officials about the outlet.

"The agreement reached Friday evening makes us feel more comfortable with it," said Williamson. "Not all of our issues have been addressed yet, but we're comfortable that our environmental resources in Manitoba will be protected."

For Dale Frink, the outlet makes sense and will save significant money for all governments involved. He added that this $28 million outlet is just a spoke in the wheel of all the flood-protection projects aimed at Devils Lake. For him, what has been spent already on lost property makes the outlet necessary for protecting the nearby cities.

"The City of Minnewaukan is certainly in jeopardy," he explained. "(The city of) Devils Lake is in jeopardy. FEMA has moved over 500 homes and the entire city of Church's Ferry. This is an enormously costly problem for us.

"We think (the outlet) will save us future dollars, and that just depends on if we turn around into a dry cycle. Then maybe we won't need the outlet."

But it does not matter what the state's argument is, Milt Sauer is not buying into the idea. "The lake is too big to stabilize, this is just a lot of political grabbing," he said.

"Mother Nature will decide what Devils Lake does, man will do nothing about it."

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Related Links:

North Dakota State Water Commission

North Dakota Geological Survey - Devils Lake Origins

People to Save the Sheyenne River

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