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Solving Devils Lake flooding is priority

But faith-based organizations prepare for major flooding expected next Spring


Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota has vexed residents for years as water levels have risen, forcing hundreds of homes to be destroyed or relocated. State water officials now believe they have found a solution, but it will be years before it can be completed and major flooding is predicted again for next year.

The Devils Lake Water Basin is huge: 3,800 square miles, but it has not had a natural way for the excess water to drain from the lake which has meant that as more water flows into the region, the lake continued to expand.

An upper chain of lakes, which fill each spring and summer, all drain into Devils Lake. Elevation graphs for Devils Lake show the water level rising steadily since the early 1990s. In less than two decades, the lake’s surface area has nearly tripled, going from 38,000 square acres to 100,000.

“It has had an impact on the lives of everyone who lives there,” said Bonnie Turner of Lutheran Disaster Response.

Since 1993, an estimated 650 structures, including 450 homes, have been moved or lost due to rising water. According to the State Water Commission, state and federal governments have spent more than $450 million on flood mitigation efforts as of last year.

Dr. Kit O’Neill is the North Dakota chair of the state Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD). She has worked with the Lutheran Disaster Response and other faith-based organizations to provide “financial, emotional and spiritual support” to those affected by Devils Lake flooding. For a state with only about 600,000 residents, the costs have been significant. According to O’Neill, the level of total spending as a result of this disaster is “approaching one billion dollars.”

In 1997, Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to research and design an outlet. They came up with a design that would have cost $186 million to build, but because of a lack of funds, the state of North Dakota instead constructed its own outlet, with the understanding that it would need to be upgraded later on.

Bruce Engelhardt, a North Dakota Water Commission engineer, recently told the members of the press that the outlet was in operation for 165 days this year.

Last month, the North Dakota State Water Commission approved $15 million to upgrade the outlet, sending additional water from Devils Lake into the Sheyenne River, eventually flowing north into Canada. However, some of the residents of downstream Valley City believe the solution for Devils Lake puts the quality of their drinking water in jeopardy. Some of those residents have petitioned for a study to determine exactly what’s in the saline Devils Lake water, which is known to contain sulfates.

However, improvements are being made to Valley City’s water treatment plant, thanks to financing from the State Water Commission. Wade Hesch, Valley City’s water treatment plant manager, said that with the upgrades, Valley City will have cleaner drinking water even with input from Devils Lake.

Work is being done on an ongoing basis to protect residents of Devils Lake’s neighboring communities. “There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars that will be spent to address this issue,” said Mike Grafsgaard, the City Engineer for Devils Lake. “We are working to raise our flood embankment an additional five to eight feet to raise our flood protection.”

Grafsgaard said the embankment work will be divided into four or five phases, with the first being completed next year and the final phase in 2012 or 2013. The project has an estimated cost of $113 million, 75 percent of which will be paid by the federal government through the Army Corps of Engineers.

A separate project will be undertaken next year on the southern side of the lake, which the Spirit Lake Nation, a Sioux tribe, calls home. According to Grafsgaard, the North Dakota Department of Transportation will spend more than $100 million to raise dams and roads there next summer. These plans follow a previous temporary solution of filling culverts and trying to turn roads into dams strategies that failed to solve the problem.

Tim Heisler, the emergency manager for Ramsey County, doesn’t sugarcoat the issue when talking about the devastation this lake has caused the area. “We’ve had a really trying year in 2009.” The issues range from “erosion, road closures and abandonments, utility line damage, highly saturated sewer systems” the list doesn’t seem to have an end.

Some families, such as those in the town of Penn, ND, have been exposed to raw sewage. Despite a dry November, “we have a road system that has been strained to the max.” Next year, additional flooding could render more farmland useless.

“The forecast is for record flooding again in 2010,” said Dr. O’Neill. Residents get a break each winter from the stress and anxiety caused by the flooding, but every spring it comes back.

Bonnie Turner said she had worked with a variety of faith-based partners to create a new organization called Raft, for Resource Agencies Flood Team. Raft was set up to provide case management services when floods happen, which are an ongoing problem in North Dakota.

“This is not a small event,” said Heisler. “This is a huge, long-term event. We’ve never seen any damages like this.”

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Related Links:

Quick Facts About Devils Lake (PDF)

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