Devils Lake project nears end amid debate
Devils Lake project nears end amid debate
May 1, 2005
DEVILS LAKE -- A winding 14-mile canal being built to move water off swollen Devils Lake is nearly finished, and cold weather enthusiasts already have taken test drives.
"Snowmobilers just love this thing," said Carl Duchscher, who has been working with landowners on the state's new Devils Lake outlet. "They think this is just the greatest thing on earth."
The only visual evidence of the project are two huge water towers on the horizon, but they cast a symbolic shadow beyond state and national borders. The canal that the snowmobilers love is the subject of an international dispute.
Canadian officials are asking that the outlet be delayed until an independent board can determine if it will hurt water systems north of the border, including Lake Winnipeg. North Dakota leaders say it's too late for such a review and that water quality will be protected.
"The bottom line is that we will not allow Canada to block progress on protecting life and property in the Devils Lake Basin," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
State officials say construction of the outlet is on pace for completion in June. It will wind through rolling hills from the west end of Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River, with 10 miles of open channel and four miles of underground pipeline. There are two places where the water must travel uphill, so pumping stations with electric engines will move it into 80-foot storage towers.
The project is designed to haul 45,000 gallons of water per minute, which is expected to increase the level of the Sheyenne River by a few inches and shave up to 4 inches per year off Devils Lake. The open parts of the clay-lined channel should be only a couple of feet deep during maximum flow, its builders say.
Ramsey County Commis-sioner Joe Belford spends most of his spare time leading the fight for the outlet. He attends meetings throughout the state as well as in Washington and Winnipeg, Manitoba. He volunteers to take visitors on tours.
"The people who have been affected by this are his customers," Duchscher said of Belford, who owns a convenience store in Devils Lake.
While guiding two Canadian reporters around the area, Belford points out residential areas and farms that have been swallowed up by rising water. The only people who have opted to stay near the lake live in RV courts, he says.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think there would be water up there," Belford says, motioning to a marooned farmstead.
"And over there," he continues, looking at more abandoned buildings, "as far as I'm concerned that's a death related to the flood. He lost his land, he lost his farm, wound up in a nursing home. A year later he passed away."
Belford moves the tour west to Minnewaukan, which was nine miles away from the lake in 1993. He points out a swamp next to the school. It used to be a football field. The goal posts remain.
Before he gets to the West Bay, where the outlet begins, Belford notes that about $500 million has been spent fighting the rising lake in the last 10 years. That includes moving homes, building roads and levees, and buying flood insurance. It does not include economic losses, he says.
The two Canadian reporters listen and ask questions about the history of the lake. One said the issue appears to be heating up as the outlet nears completion.
Manitoba Water Stewardship Minister Steve Ashton recently met with officials of Minnesota and other Great Lakes states to gain support for seeking an independent review of the outlet. He also has threatened to hold back cooperation on other border water projects.
Michael Byers, a professor of international law at the University of British Colom-bia, said Canadians have realized that the "stakes are higher" than they thought.
"I have some sympathy for the people of North Dakota on this. The fluctuating water levels have caused a lot of problems for the people who live in the area," Byers said. "I'm disturbed by the fact that the two sides in this dispute haven't been able to settle on an agreed-way forward."
The cost of the Devils Lake outlet is about $28 million. Some residents believe it's a waste of money because it won't drain enough water from the lake.
"When you consider expenditures of $500 million, the price of the outlet is a drop in the bucket," State Water Commission engineer Dale Frink said. "But over time, it will make a difference."
Frink said safeguards are built into the state permit to maintain water quality and flow. The pumps will operate only between May and November, and will be shut down if either the Sheyenne or Red River are at or above flood stage.
Plans are for about 10 monitoring stations from the insertion point into the Sheyenne River to the Canadian border, including four on the Red River. Real-time readings from those gauges will be posted online, Frink said.
Some Canadians say that further study is needed on the lake's biota, salt content and nutrients, mainly phosphorous, that could end up in Lake Winnipeg. Belford said the North Dakota Department of Health would not have approved a permit that would hurt its own people.
"We are a good stewards of the water and the land and will remain that way," Belford said. "We're not out to harm, because 40 percent of the state's population live downstream from Devils Lake."
The political maneuvering has intensified in the last month. Conrad and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., have criticized Canadian officials for trying to stall the outlet. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer has accused Conrad and Dorgan of playing political hardball by using their seniority to threaten other projects.
Two North Dakota groups joined Canada and the Great Lakes states in opposing the outlet, the People to Save the Sheyenne and the Peterson Coulee Outlet Association. They also worry about the environmental impact.
"It's really hurtful to find out that all this is going to be controlled politically, I'm afraid," said Milt Sauer, a member of the Sheyenne River group. "The state likes to tell the story that 'we're not aware of anything in Devils Lake that is not in the Sheyenne.' That may be fine ... but we don't know that there isn't."
Devils Lake has more than doubled in size in the last decade, and now is around 1,448 feet. Belford said the last time it was that high was 1827, when a steamboat dock was located in what is now the city limits.
"My grandfather worked on (the dock) when he was 12 years old," Duchscher said. "He used to carry the luggage on and off for people."
That area of the city would be flooded today if not for a levee that was built in the early 1980s, originally to a level of 1,440 feet. It was recently raised to 1,460 feet.
"If it wasn't for the dike, the Wal-Mart store would have 13 feet of water in it," Belford said.
Officials on both sides of the issue also have taken their case to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.