ND turns to outlet to relieve Devils Lake flooding
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. – Back in 1995, then-Gov. Ed Schafer proposed what sounded, at least to some people, like a radical plan to ease flooding in the Devils Lake Basin that had stretched into its third consecutive year.
He suggested lowering a small divide called the Jerusalem channel between East Devils Lake and Stump Lake to allow about 2 feet of water flow into the then-stagnant Stump Lake, which engineers estimated would have risen about 20 feet, to an elevation of 1,420 feet above sea level.
It didn’t fly. Neither did a scaled-down version of the $4.6 million project to move just 1 foot of water from Devils Lake, raising Stump Lake to about 1,411 feet, mainly because people in Nelson County protested.
Devils Lake should take care of its own water, they said, not force their water problems onto their closest neighbors.
At the time, Devils Lake was at an elevation of 1,435 feet, about 13 feet higher than it had been in 1993.
“It’s kind of humorous now, but it was blocked because people didn’t believe that would happen, that Devils Lake would rise enough to pass that divide in the Jerusalem channel,” said Gov. Jack Dalrymple. “Today, it’s all one lake, all one elevation.”
The story illustrates just how divisive the Devil Lake flood issue has been over the past 20 years, as people living in the Devils Lake Basin have faced opposition and roadblocks from Stump Lake to Lake Winnipeg over the issues of water quantity and quality.
20-plus years of flooding
Devils Lake started trickling into Stump Lake in 1999, once it reached an elevation of 1,446.6 feet. It took another eight years, but the two lakes equalized, essentially becoming one lake, at an elevation of 1,447.15 feet, in 2007.
The combined lake reached a record elevation of 1,454.4 feet last summer, less than 4 feet from the 1,458-foot elevation that it would begin spilling uncontrollably out of Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River Valley, which flows into the Red River north of Fargo.
The lake’s elevation has dropped since last year’s peak, as it does virtually every year because of evaporation in summer and early fall. After freezing at about 1,453.3 feet, the National Weather Service now forecasts that because of a dry fall and mild winter, the lake may not reach the 2011 record this year.
But that has not stopped state and federal officials from pursuing projects to prevent a potential uncontrolled overflow.
The lake has quadrupled in size, devouring farmland, and forcing federal acquisitions most of the property in Churchs Ferry and Penn, plus the partial relocation of Minnewaukan, now under way.
About $1.5 billion has been spent to raise roads, dikes and other infrastructure, to pay for people to move homes and businesses out of the way, and to find ways to provide relief to people in the Devils Lake Basin, while at the same time prevent potentially catastrophic damage downstream.
Another plan was discussed in the late 1990s and early 2000s to essentially clean out Tolna Coulee so Stump Lake could begin to flow naturally toward the Sheyenne River. It was a federal government project, one that many people in the upper basin believe could have resolved the Devils Lake flood issue by releasing smaller amounts of water over the past dozen years or so without causing damage downstream.
However, that project was rejected, mainly because of Canadian opposition and environmental issues involved with moving water through a federal wetland area.
Instead, the state built an outlet in 2005 from the west end of Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River. The 100-cubic-feet-per-second outlet was expanded to 250 cfs in 2010.
“That west-end outlet was planned based on the 1997 flood events,” Dalrymple said. “That took a long time to bring online. It just shows that at that time, there were a lot of people who didn’t believe that we had a problem. Again, at that time, the thought was that getting to 250 (cfs) would be a big help and possibly be enough.”
In 2009 and 2011, upper basin annual inflows into the lake set records, surpassing 580,000 acre-feet in each of those years. That compares with average combined outflows, plus evaporation, of about 200,000 acre-feet.
Then, the lake rose by about 6 feet between 2009 and 2011, including almost 3 feet in 2011 alone.
“That was a milestone in the sense that when people started to contemplate the realistic possibility of a catastrophic overflow, that it could be a one-year event, things changed,” Dalrymple said.
Over the past couple of years, Dalrymple and the state’s congressional delegation have discussed the issue with officials from Valley City, Lisbon, Fargo, Grand Forks, as well as in Minnesota and Manitoba, Dalrymple said, to build an understanding that managing the lake is better than allowing it to overflow uncontrolled out of Stump Lake.
Now, three major projects are under construction or planned this spring in an effort to move more water from the Devils Lake Basin. All of them are expected to be in operation by June, when Devils Lake reaches its normal peak flow times.
- The state is building a 350-cfs outlet from East Devils Lake that would operate when the lake is above 1,446 feet. Combined with the expanded west-end outlet, they’ll be capable of removing up to 600 cfs for about six months annually, from May to freeze-up in November. The plan has restrictions, however, to cut back or stop releases in times of high water or of low water quality in the Sheyenne River.
- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the State Water Commission are building a $70 million control structure on the Tolna Coulee, one that will not operate until the lake elevation surpasses 1,458 feet. The structure is designed to mimic natural erosion, so that as the coulee erodes from the flow, more water would be allowed to flow.
- The State Water Commission and the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource District are testing land south of Stump Lake, where they hope to build a gravity-flow outlet from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee. That outlet would be built at an elevation of 1,452 feet, allowing water to flow until the lake drops to that point, with probable flows of about 500 to 600 cfs.
If the lake continues to rise closer to the spill elevation, those flows would increase. However, the state’s operating plan calls for the combined outlets to release no more than a total of 3,000 cfs, and to further restrict flows during high-water periods in the Sheyenne River Valley.
During the record flood of 2009, peak flows in Valley City were between 6,000 and 7,000 cfs.
Eventually, state and federal officials would like to lower Devils Lake to about 1,446 feet and manage it at that point, allowing for some variances based on weather events, according to State Engineer Todd Sando.
“The goal is to get about 8 feet of water out of the lake,” he said. “If we could get a foot a year off, on average – when the lake’s this size, it’s going to take longer to get it down. But over time, we’d probably think that would be good.”
In November, the City Commission in Valley City adopted a resolution that supports the controlled release of Devils Lake water but insisting that downstream communities play an active role in managing the operating plans for a planned Stump Lake gravity-flow emergency channel.
“A great deal of progress has occurred in coming to a general consensus that it is in the interest of both those in the Devils Lake Basin and those who live downstream to move water out of the lake in a controlled manner,” said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
“In previous years, we were more likely to hear strong resistance to any movement of water. Now the discussion is more about quantity, quality and when it will move. The common-interest theme really occurred as most people downstream realized that the risk of a potentially catastrophic uncontrolled overflow is very real.”
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the state is making real progress.
“Letting out water in a controlled way and installing a control structure at Tolna Coulee will provide a safety valve for the Devils Lake region and at the same time protect downstream communities and individuals,” the senator and former governor said.
The State Water Commission also developed a Devils Lake Mitigation Plan to address issues downstream. At least two Sheyenne River Valley landowners had submitted applications, as of early February, for projects to protect some cropland located in the bottomlands.
“We have said basically that we will mitigate any effects on the Sheyenne River that are caused by increased flows from the outlet,” Gov. Dalrymple said, adding that the potential cost of the program remains unknown.
“This was part of our three-prong strategy: first, to store as much water in the upper basin as possible; second, to mitigate flood impacts with dikes, levees and other infrastructure in the Devils Lake region; and third, to release water in a controlled way,” Hoeven said.
A citizens group in Barnes County, the Ad Hoc Downstream Group, continues to demand that more water be stored in the Upper Devils Lake Basin, rather than threatening or endangering downstream property.
“Nobody can make the rain and snow stop, but we can leave it where it falls,” the ad hoc group said in a recent 19-page report it distributed to help build support, adding that the state refuses to impose a moratorium on future wetland drainage in the Devils Lake Basin.
“State and federal agencies need to establish an appropriate price for wetland restoration and make water storage a key component of a comprehensive, equitable, science-based water management program for the Devils Lake Basin,” the ad hoc group concluded.
While earlier attempts to encourage farmers to store more water upstream largely have failed – mainly because of federal programs that require 30-year easements, the state’s congressional delegation is working to modify program requirements and to find new ways to compensate landowners for the loss of productive farmland.
One of them, the Wetland Reserve Program, requires 30-year easements and has been available only for water that’s less than 6 feet deep. A waterbank program under development would cover water that is more than 6 feet deep – essentially land that has been under water for several years, and shortening the easement period.
Conrad said the reconvening in 2010 of a 1995 federal interagency task force on Devils Lake resulted in three significant developments toward both short-term and long-term solutions: the EPA approving the state’s request for a permanent change on the water quality standard for sulfates on the Upper Sheyenne River from 450 to 750 mg/l; the Department of Education approving a $6 million Impact Aid grant to relocate Minnewaukan Public School to higher ground; and EPA determining that the Water Transfer Rule allows the state flexibility in addressing water quality standards.
“The EPA decisions removed a major potential barrier to moving more water off Devils Lake through the state outlets,” he said.
Finally, he noted the creation of the Devils Lake Executive Committee Task Force.
“The DLEC has fostered improved communications and again focused our efforts on these critical issues – from constructing additional state outlets to highway funding and many other needs around the basin,” Conrad said.
Conrad said it took the imminent threat of an uncontrolled spill from Stump Lake to convince the Canadian and provincial officials to listen to ideas about moving more water downstream.
“After Stump Lake filled and the two lakes equalized, coupled with the significant inflows into the lake starting in 2009, the probability of an uncontrolled overflow became a very real possibility to them,” Conrad said. “In 2010, in meetings spearheaded by Sen. (Byron) Dorgan, the Canadians formally acknowledged for the first time that it was in their interest to prevent an uncontrolled overflow of the lake through controlled releases of water.
This was a major step forward.”
“I think downstream communities are concerned about drinking water and flooding issues,” Hoeven said. “That is why we have worked to place a control structure on Tolna Coulee and invested in a new, state-of-the art water filtration system for Valley City.”
“We need to keep upstream and downstream interests working together on our three-part plan, which is to store as much water in the upper basin, mitigate impacts with dikes and other infrastructure, and release as much water as possible in a controlled way,” he added.
Conrad said the concerns of downstream communities are legitimate, as more water is moved through new and bigger outlets.
“Mitigation needs to occur with respect to stream bank erosion, property buyouts for homes and other structures too close to the river to protect as erosion occurs, assistance to modify water treatment plants to address increased sulfates, and assistance in the continued development of their local flood protection plans. In most circumstances, these communities simply do not have the financial capacity to do all of this on their own,” he said.
The governor and two senators are convinced that the Devils Lake Basin is on its way toward getting permanent flood protection and lake stabilization.
“We believe we’re turning the corner on flooding in the Devils Lake region with the new outlets and additional mitigation,” Hoeven said. “A lot will depend on the weather cycle, of course, but we are putting millions of federal and state dollars into flood protection and millions on new outlets to be proactive. We’ll continue to do all we can to protect Devils Lake, as well as downstream communities.”
“From my standpoint, there’s really only one obstacle – the joint management of all these outlets through all the interested parties,” Dalrymple said. “We need to maintain some consensus on how to manage these outlets and how to manage the lake. That’s going to be a continuous effort.”
“In some sense, that’s up to Mother Nature,” Conrad said. “But I think our combined efforts can go a long way toward protecting people who are under the threat of flood. I believe the outlets currently under development make significant progress in combination with a return to more moderate precipitation.
The weather patterns we’ve seen so far this year may give us the breathing room we need to finally make some headway against this disaster.”
Kevin Bonham reports for the Grand Forks Herald