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Published May 11, 2010, 07:17 AM

Get moving on finding solution for lake

Devils Lake just keeps going up, and that poses a growing threat to downstream communities along the Sheyenne River in places like Valley City, Lisbon, Kindred, West Fargo and Harwood. The lake has surged 28 feet since 1992, more than tripling its size, dislocating 450 homes and swamping more than 80,000 acres of farmland. The spreading crisis already has consumed more than $1 billion.

By: The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, The Jamestown Sun

Devils Lake just keeps going up, and that poses a growing threat to downstream communities along the Sheyenne River in places like Valley City, Lisbon, Kindred, West Fargo and Harwood. The lake has surged 28 feet since 1992, more than tripling its size, dislocating 450 homes and swamping more than 80,000 acres of farmland. The spreading crisis already has consumed more than $1 billion.

Now the swollen lake is creeping up to 6 1/2 feet from its spillover elevation — the level that would start sending uncontrolled releases of water down the Sheyenne. Scientists believe that has happened three or four times, most recently about 2,000 years ago. Forecasters have given it a 10 percent chance of happening in the next 10 years. The margin will shrink when the lake rises another 1 to 2 1/2 feet this summer, forecast to be wet and cool.

All of this means that the time for hand-wringing when it comes to more aggressively controlling the level of Devils Lake is rapidly drawing to an end. The summit earlier this week on the Devils Lake dilemma brought home several messages, one of which is a sober consensus that it’s now likely a matter of when, not if, the lake will reach its spillover level. Devils Lake, in other words, is a ticking time bomb.

Another message, one underscored by the area residents who lined up in the town of Devils Lake to register their level of concern, is that the expensive and disruptive game of catch-up to keep raising dikes and roads can’t go on much longer. The Devils Lake basin is a natural bathtub, and it needs a better drain.

Results so far in controlling the lake, through an outlet built south of Minnewaukan on the west side, have been disappointing. Work soon will finish to more than double its pumping capacity, however. Releases are constrained by weather conditions and water standards restricting the concentration of sulfates and other dissolved solids allowed to enter the Sheyenne. Unfortunately, those levels are much higher on the lake’s east end, where the natural outlet, the Tolna Coulee, drains into the Sheyenne.

Outlet opponents, including Canadians who live many miles downstream, where dilution will significantly reduce concentrations, howl about water quality degradation and the impact to water species. At high enough levels, those concerns are valid. But opponents must acknowledge the very real possibility that damaging, uncontrolled releases from a natural spillover will occur, so high levels are an act of nature, not of man.

Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers brass have pledged to study another outlet, a process that will trickle along for two years. That is too slow. If necessary, the corps should hire outside help to speed up its review and study. Otherwise, the state might be forced, once again, to create its own solution. The time is overdue for decisiveness, not more dithering.

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