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Devils Lake outlet construction moving quickly; effectiveness, environmental impacts questioned

(Part One of a two-part series) DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Near the western end of the creeping blue monster surrounding this city, Bruce Engelhardt gazes toward the small town of Minnewaukan and remembers driving across the lakebed on his three-wheeler...

Best of a bad situation

(Part One of a two-part series)

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - Near the western end of the creeping blue monster surrounding this city, Bruce Engelhardt gazes toward the small town of Minnewaukan and remembers driving across the lakebed on his three-wheeler.

"Where Mauvais Coulee came through, there was that much water," he says, holding his hands 6 inches apart. "But for all practical purposes, it was dry from here all the way through town."

That was 1991. Now, the wooded farmstead where Engelhardt grew up is surrounded on two sides by Devils Lake, a body of water that has tripled in size since 1993, swallowing all in its path.

Several miles away, contractors are working 20 hours a day to complete the $28 million Devils Lake emergency outlet.


Backhoes scoop out dirt and rock to create the canal. Explosives blow apart underground boulders to clear tunnels beneath protected wetlands.

When finished, the outlet will pump water from the west end of the lake through 4 miles of buried pipeline and 10 miles of open channel before emptying into the Sheyenne River to the southwest.

The North Dakota Water Commission hopes the outlet will help control the rise of Devils Lake and safeguard the 7,222 people living in this Holland on the prairie.

Engelhardt, a lanky man fond of cowboy hats and Copenhagen chew, holds more than a personal connection to the project. As head of the state Water Commission's investigation division, he's in charge of it.

While the Devils Lake situation may look bad now, it could get much worse, he says.

At its current elevation of 1,449 feet above sea level, Devils Lake is spilling out its east end into Stump Lake. Together, the two lakes cover about 154,000 acres. If they reach 1,460 feet - the point at which Stump Lake naturally overflows uncontrolled into the Sheyenne River - the two lakes will cover 295,000 acres.

"We're at roughly half the area that could be flooded," Engelhardt says.

But many locals, including Leo Walker, whose farmland was condemned to make way for the outlet, say the outlet won't make a dent in the lake.


Running the outlet full-bore from May to November, as allowed by the state's discharge permit, would shave up to 4 inches of water off Devils Lake annually. With constraints on water quality and quantity, state officials admit the amount will be less than that. Some opponents suggest it could be less than 2 inches per year.

Now, consider this: The lake has risen 26 feet since 1993 - 2½ feet this year alone.

"It's like draining a bathtub through a barroom straw," Walker says of the outlet.

However, as the lake continues to flood roads and farmland - 17,000 acres so far this year - doing nothing is not an option, says Carl Duchscher, chairman of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board.

"Something has to be done," he says. "You cannot just sit on your hands and watch it go up and up and up."

At Felix's restaurant along U.S. Highway 2 in Devils Lake, owner Mike Mertens rings up tabs for the lunch-hour crowd.

In the round entryway, a white cardboard sign with black lettering hangs about 15 feet up the wall, proclaiming: "Current Devils Lake Elevation."

Mertens says it's a reminder that without the levee holding back the lake, much of the city would be under water. He already had to move his house off Devils Lake's Creel Bay in 1999.


"And this year I lost my lake lot that I used to rent out," he said.

Devils Lake is an expensive beast to keep at bay. More than $43 million has been spent on the city's 7-mile-long levee system, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The corps hopes to begin work this fall or next spring to add 3 feet to the levee. That would provide protection to a lake level of 1,454 feet, or 5 feet above the current lake level.

Corps officials expect to award a contract for the estimated $8.5 million project in late August.

Even while the dike holds firm, city residents still feel the effects of the high lake level. After storms dumped 4 inches of rain over Memorial Day weekend, the city had a special pickup day to haul away carpet and furniture from about 170 homes.

"The ground is so saturated and the water table is so high that a lot of heavy rain, the ground just can't absorb it," Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott said. "That's what's causing our problems."

The west-end outlet is a crucial piece of the city's protection plan, Bott said.

"Taking a few inches off the level of the lake is really important when inches can make the difference in the protection level of the dike," he said.


Devils Lake is spilling intoStump Lake at 200 cubic feet per second - twice the maximum rate the outlet will be able to release.

Stump Lake has risen 5 feet this year and could jump another 5 feet by the end of the year, said Todd Sando, assistant engineer for the state Water Commission.

The two lakes will level out at 1,450 feet and then continue to rise together. By that time, Stump Lake will have risen 35 feet, flooding another 58,000 acres of land.

If Stump Lake reaches its natural outlet point of 1,460 feet, it will naturally begin to spill into the Sheyenne River, and at a much higher rate - up to 12,500 cubic feet per second. The flooding impact on downstream communities such as Valley City would be devastating, officials say.

Outlet opponents argue releasing Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne River could be equally as devastating to the environment.

Evaporation has caused a buildup of dissolved minerals in Devils Lake, about half of which are sulfates, Engelhardt said.

The lake's salty water hasn't overflowed into the Sheyenne River - and therefore hasn't mingled with the Red River - for more than 1,000 years, said Dwight Williamson, manager of water quality for Manitoba Water Stewardship.

Province officials are concerned the high level of salts and a new pool of nutrients introduced by Devils Lake water could harm fisheries in Lake Winnipeg, the 10th-largest body of freshwater in the world.


Another concern, Williamson said, is the lack of information about the plant and animal life, or biota, in Devils Lake.

The Army Corps of Engineers' stalled plan for a Devils Lake outlet - which would pump three times more water than the state outlet but also cost nearly seven times more - said a thorough biological study is needed before a federal outlet can proceed.

Even if no harmful biota is found, the corps' project still will require a sand filter. Due to the high cost of such a filter - the corps' estimate was $18 million - the state's outlet doesn't include one, Engelhardt said.

However, Engelhardt said the Water Commission has found no biota in Devils Lake that doesn't already exist in the Red River. And Sando said geological evidence shows Devils Lake water has merged with the Sheyenne and Red rivers in the past.

"It has done it before, just before we settled here," Sando said. "There's geological evidence that it's flowed over a few times. In fact, it's happened within the past 4,000 years."

Canadian officials argue the outlet would violate the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, which says neither country may pollute international waters to the detriment of the other.

Both Manitoba and the Canadian government have asked the U.S. government to join an effort to refer the issue to the International Joint Commission, which settles boundary water issues.

"It's a legitimate dispute," said Williamson, a member of the International Red River Board, which advises the IJC and toured the outlet two weeks ago. "There are many scientific facts that are in question."


Sando disagrees.

"We're not arguing science with them. We have the science. It's just a political argument," he said.

In fact, the state is pumping water out of the west end of Devils Lake because water pumped from an east end outlet - which would be far less expensive to build - would be too salty, Sando said. Devils Lake is recharged by fresh rain runoff flowing into the west end from the upper basin.

Mertens, the restaurant owner, said locals are concerned about the outlet's effects on the economy and environment.

"The people in town, and me being a fisherman, we're a little worried about the east end of our lake dying, with them taking all the fresh water out of the west end," he said.

Milton Sauer, president of the citizen's group People to Save the Sheyenne, acknowledges the Sheyenne River is already "pretty dirty." But he worries Devils Lake water will further pollute the river and erode its banks.

"I used to sit in it (the river) and play in it and drink the water," said Sauer, who lives on the same farm south of Valley City where he grew up. "My God, you wouldn't do that today."

Valley City's mayor agrees with the Canadians that further study is needed on the environmental impacts.

"We're not opposing or supporting it, but we are concerned that we don't want to see our water supply jeopardized," Riley Rogers said.

When Bott took over the mayor's office in 1990, the concern was about not enough water in Devils Lake.

Now, the lake is even more renowned for its fishing. Larry Schneider, part owner of Gerrells Sports Center in downtown Devils Lake, said his customers include anglers from states such as South Dakota, Wisconsin and California.

"Even people from Minnesota," he said with a touch of sarcasm aimed at Minnesotans who oppose any release of Devils Lake water into shared state waters.

The lake's rise has worked both ways for the local economy, Bott said.

"It's benefited because it certainly is a boost to tourism. But at the same token, water in the upper basin has inundated cropland, and that's the downside, because we are an agricultural community and can't afford to have cropland taken out of production."

Jim and Diane Yri made the best of a bad situation when the lake swallowed up more than 1,000 acres of their farmland, starting in 1997.

They are now in their third year of operating West Bay Resort, which they started to support their five children. They still farm 700 acres, but their saving grace has been the six yellow cabins, two of which were added this year.

Diane Yri views the state's outlet as a waste of taxpayer money and a threat to their livelihood.

"They're taking such a minimum amount, it isn't going to do much in the long run," she said while hosing gravel off the driveway. "But if it does, it'll kill the lake."

Walker and four other landowners whose land was condemned for the outlet refuse to pick up their state-issued checks sitting at the Benson County Courthouse. They're appealing the state's valuation of the land.

Walker said he has 12 to 13 acres of farmland being cut off by the 250-foot easement for the outlet.

"We get a crop out of this every year," he said. "They want to buy it one time."

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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