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Officials stand by Devils Lake gravity outlet

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - City officials in Devils Lake are dusting off an old plan they believe could provide significant relief from chronic flooding without threatening people and property downstream.

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. - City officials in Devils Lake are dusting off an old plan they believe could provide significant relief from chronic flooding without threatening people and property downstream.

A gravity outlet from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River, essentially the same project that almost was built in 1999 for $2.2 million, would move water from the south end of Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River without passing through wetlands.

They offered the project to the North Dakota State Water Commission earlier this year as an alternative to the state-proposed East Devils Lake outlet and Tolna Coulee control structure.

"If they're looking at spending $60 million to

$80 million to develop their East Devils Lake outlet, why do that when you could build a gravity outlet for much, much less," Devils Lake City Engineer Mike Grafsgaard said. "We thought that difference in cost could be used for downstream mitigation. That was really the whole premise."

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Such a project would allow enough water to be moved from Devils Lake to create a pool, or a cushion, for additional storage, like a reservoir.

The water commission, chaired by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, ultimately voted to order the pipe for the East Devils Lake outlet project that, when completed, would pump a maximum of 350 cubic feet of water uphill to a divide and then flow through a 5.5-mile, 96-inch underground culvert to the Tolna Coulee.

The state expects its project, plus an estimated $10 million control structure on the coulee, to be in operation by May or June of next year. It's a flood-control project, to prevent a catastrophic spill from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River and address health issues, officials said.

The control structure has faced opposition from both upstream and downstream interests. Because it would not operate until the elevation of Devils Lake surpasses the natural spill elevation of 1,458 feet above sea level, the lake would swallow tens of thousands more acres in the upper basin, flooding roads, houses and other buildings.

Devils Lake currently is at an elevation of about 1,454.25 feet. It has risen by about 32 feet and quadrupled in size, claiming more than 160,000 acres, and cost nearly $1.5 billion in damage and mitigation since 1993. It has risen by about 7 feet since 2008.

People downstream say the proposed Tolna Coulee control structure, which would allow maximum flows of 3,000 cfs, will only exacerbate flooding problems in the Sheyenne River Valley, which is in the middle of a summer flood. The Sheyenne River at Valley City was at about 15.5 feet, about 1.5 feet below major flood stage, this past week, prompting the water commission to stop flows from Devils Lake's west-end outlet, which has a maximum capacity of 250 cfs.

State officials say flows through the control structure likely would be less than 3,000 cfs. In addition, they cite engineering estimates that if Devils Lake would spill uncontrollably, the flows could be 9,000 to 14,000 cfs, which likely would result in widespread destruction.

At its peak earlier this year, upper basin inflows into Devils Lake surpassed 7,300 cfs. The proposed 600 cfs capacity of the existing west-end and proposed East Devils Lake outlets would remove only about one-third of the estimated 600,000 acre-feet of water that flowed into the lake in 2009.

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Alongside other ­projects

Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson said an outlet directly from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne, as proposed in 1999, still makes sense, even if the state builds the East Devils Lake outlet and the Tolna Coulee control structure.

"It seems like the control structure is a done deal," Johnson said. "Most people, whether they're for it or against it, are resigned to that fact. Our mission here still is to try to get water off the lake. We're spending more than $1.5 billion, and people upstream are storing water without any compensation. Why spend that amount of money when we could be moving water out of here for $10 million?"

"I still think it's very important to take measures to install a gravity outlet from the lake," Grafsgaard said. "We have to be in a position to have that operational flexibility to be able to allow a controlled discharge from the lake at elevations below the natural overflow. Because, if the lake becomes brimful, then we're at a point that what comes into the lake has to go out of the lake. That's just simple math.

The proposed Tolna Coulee control structure would be built on wetlands, which requires a federal permit.

Grafsgaard believes a gravity outlet from Stump Lake could be done as an emergency measure, without crossing wetlands.

Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald

Related Topics: DEVILS LAKE
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