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Published February 20, 2010, 12:00 AM

Devils Lake outlet impact discussed

Local, North Dakota and federal leaders emphasize cooperation and support among government agencies when facing the effects of Devils Lake outlet water on downstream communities in the Sheyenne River basin.

Local, North Dakota and federal leaders emphasize cooperation and support among government agencies when facing the effects of Devils Lake outlet water on downstream communities in the Sheyenne River basin.

North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan hosted a field hearing Thursday for the Energy and Water Subcommittee, which he heads, and brought government leaders, experts and residents together to weave through the complicated web of issues and concerns stemming from high water levels at Devils Lake.

Devils Lake-area leaders said they have no option but to release some water using an outlet into the Sheyenne River basin, but that action concerns downstream communities – such as Fargo and West Fargo – because of potentially higher water levels and reduced water quality associated with the extra water.

Devils Lake has risen 27 feet since 1993 – with 3 feet in the last year alone, and officials there worry it might raise that much again this year.

At its current elevation, the lake has about 8 feet left of capacity before it would naturally flow out on the east end and devastate surrounding communities there and downstream, Gov. John Hoeven said.

To prevent this, state officials have been managing a controlled flow using an outlet on the west end, which can lower the lake level by 3-4 inches at its average flow.

Still, that additional water has the potential to bring measurable increases in water levels to downstream communities and possibly worsen their water quality.

That concern comes from the increased amount of sulfate, which Devils Lake water naturally contains, flowing into downstream waterways.

State health officials want to increase the standard for sulfate levels above the Baldhill Dam, which is 12 miles northwest of Valley City, but they stress there will be no change in standards on communities south of there, such as Fargo or West Fargo.

The sulfate content level remains within acceptable water quality standards, officials said.

Sulfates are a natural laxative and, in higher concentrations, can affect the taste and odor of water.

Sulfates can be treated with water purification systems, such as reverse osmosis, but it is costly.

For instance, if the increased sulfate levels trickle down to affect Fargo-Moorhead, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said it would cost $45 million to upgrade the city’s water treatment plant in order to continue purifying drinking water at the city’s current standard – which is about half the level of the state’s standard.

Although Dorgan and others said the outlet is necessary, the Valley City-based group People to Save The Sheyenne protest the use of the outlet and call for more scientific studies about the potential downstream impact.

“We do not believe in our area that enough studies have been done about what’s going to happen down the road,” said Jim Stevens, former president of the group.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541

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