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Published April 25, 2011, 06:45 AM

A long, wet ag disaster

PENN, N.D. — Dan Webster’s pickup bounces along the bumpy, muddy gravel road. On both sides of the road are ice, snow and water.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

PENN, N.D. — Dan Webster’s pickup bounces along the bumpy, muddy gravel road. On both sides of the road are ice, snow and water.

The Penn, N.D., farmer grips the steering wheel with one hand and points to nearby fields and farmsteads with the other.

“That farmstead over there — it’ll probably have to be abandoned this summer; the only road to it will be under water. That field over there — it probably won’t get planted. It’s really good land, too,” he says.

He pauses for a moment before saying, “We’ve done what we can to hold back the water. But it just keeps rising.”

Webster has been fighting rising water for years, just like most other agricultural producers in North Dakota’s Devils Lake Basin.

The lake has risen 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, when the rise began. Farmland that once was miles from the lake now is under water or in danger of soon being submerged.

Farmers in the Devils Lake area — the lake and the area’s biggest town share the name — already have lost 163,450 acres of producing farmland since the lake began rising in 1993, officials say.

But this year threatens to be the worst yet for farmers.

Recently, nearly 3.3 million gallons per minute were recorded from the six monitored coulees that flow into the lake. That trails only the record peak inflows in 1997, officials say.

Another 3-foot rise in the lake is possible this summer, which would swamp even more land.

Rising waters also could submerge roads, potentially making 20,000 to 30,000 acres inaccessible, says Bill Hodous, Ramsey County Extension Service agent.

The Devils Lake Basin occupies Ramsey and Benson counties. Farmers in the two counties grow many crops, including wheat, soybeans, barley, corn, canola, sunflowers, dry beans and flax.

Another huge concern is that many fields in the area are saturated after heavy rains last fall and substantial snow over the winter. Some of those fields may not be ready for planting until late May or early June, Hodous and others say.

Planting so late almost certainly would cut into yields and increase the risk of, and damage from, fall frost.

Persistent and painful

Flooding might evoke images of torrents of water erupting out of rivers or massive walls of water crashing into shorelines.

Devils Lake flooding isn’t like that. It’s slow, relentless and insidiously destructive: waters rising inch by inch, foot by foot, claiming roads, fields and farmsteads singly and in small groups — month after month, year after year.

“It’s like cancer spreading,” Webster says of the flooding.

Knowing the elevation of fields and the roads leading to them — and the extent to which they’re in danger of flooding — is a necessity for Webster and other area farmers. It’s become as much a part of their daily lives as following grain prices.

“We’re the only people in the state driving around with elevation maps,” he says.

Devils Lake is a closed drainage basin; at current water levels, the basin has no natural outlets. So water continues to rise, spreading over roads, fields and farmsteads that once had just enough elevation to escape flooding.

One of the traits of closed drainage basins is high salinity, or saltiness. That affects fields in the Devils Lake Basin, hurting yields.

Farmers can do almost nothing to fight salinity except plant crops such as barley that are relatively tolerant of it.

“So that’s something else we have to deal with,” Webster says.

Big losses already

This year alone, rising waters in the Devils Lake Basin will inflict a $194 million economic hit, including a $57.6 million loss to the crop sector, according to an analysis issued earlier this spring by the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

What’s bad for farmers hurts other ag businesses in the area.

“When farmers don’t have grain, we don’t have grain,” says Marvin Brekhus, manager of the Garske (N.D.) Elevator Co.

Grain elevators typically make a tiny profit on each bushel of grain they handle, so fewer bushels means less profit.

The loss of farmland also means Garske Elevator Co. sells less seed and chemicals, he says.

Farmland commonly is measured in quarter sections, or 160 acres. So the 163,450 acres of producing farmland lost to rising waters equates to about 1,000 quarters

The lost land also equates to:

n Roughly 30 percent of the acres planted to soybeans in North Dakota’s Cass County, the nation’s leading soybean producer.

n Roughly two-thirds of the acres planted to corn in South Dakota’s Brown County, which typically ranks first or second in the state in corn production.

n About 15,000 acres more than the 147,000 acres planted to spring wheat last year in Minnesota’s Kittson County, which ranked third in the state in acreage of the crop.

n About 30 percent of all the acres planted to durum in Montana last year.

Deciding to get out

Hard numbers are tough to come by, but some farmers in the Devils Lake Basin have been forced out by rising water.

Byron Lannoye, who farmed in North Dakota’s Penn and Churchs Ferry area, quit in 2006.

Rising lake water already had claimed about half his farmland, and much of the remaining land was threatened.

“It reached the point where I wanted to get out while we still had something left,” he says.

Giving up the farm, some of which had been in his family for a century, was hard.

“I’d spent my whole life in farming, 26 years for myself,” says Lannoye, now 51. “We had a very progressive, good farm.”

Now, he and his family live in Bismarck, N.D., where he is general manager and part owner of Pulse USA, a seed company.

“We’re lucky. We had something else to move on to. But a lot of people don’t,” he says.

Losing land to rising waters is bad enough for farmers, he says.

But few people realize how much extra effort and expense is needed to plant the remaining acres, Lannoye says.

He and others say active farmers aren’t the only ones being hurt. Retired farmers, who are counting on rental income from their farmland, also suffer when the land becomes untillable.

“It’s like seeing your 401(k), your pension — what you’ve spent years building up — just disappear,” he says.

It’s not only money that’s being lost. A multigenerational way of life is disappearing, too, he and others says.

The farm house in which Lannoye grew up was rented out after he and his family left. Now, rising water is forcing those tenants to move out.

“It’s tough to go back (to the area he once farmed). It’s nice to see my old friends, but it’s hard to see what’s happened. So much is gone,” he says.

A long, familiar battle

The farmstead on which Webster grew up north of Penn was abandoned to rising waters in 2001. Fourteen buildings from that farmstead were moved to the site south of Penn where he lives now.

By 2001, he’d lost about 2,000 acres, land either owned or rented. He had fought to keep the land, building up township roads to hold back the water. But eventually, the water rose too high and crossed over.

In 2000, a county road became the new battle line. The north side of the road was built up to hold back water, and water on the south side was pumped away.

“It added a lot of additional expense, but it worked. We were able to farm most of the land south of the county road,” Webster says.

“But this year, it’s probably going to go over the county road,” he says. “It conceivably could take another 2,000 acres” that Webster has been farming.

“We keep battling, fighting to stay in business. But the water just keeps rising.”

Lost financial opportunity

Crop prices were strong in 2007, 2008 and the second half of 2010, and they remain strong.

That’s allowed most area farmers to strengthen their financial position, with the good years offsetting prior years of poor prices and little profit, ag officials say.

But farmers in the Devils Lake area, with much of their land under water, have been able to take only limited advantage of the good years.

“We’re missing out, and it hurts,” Webster says.

For instance, experts generally advise farmers to sell a portion of their anticipated 2011 crop at current high prices, as protection against the possibility of lower prices later.

“But we can’t be doing that,” given uncertainty about how many acres will be planted and how many bushels will be harvested, Webster says.

Another economic hit for farmers in the Devils Lake area is their inability to receive prevented planting insurance on many of their submerged acres. Such insurance provides coverage when extreme weather conditions prevent planting.

To get the insurance, a farmer must have planted and insured the crop in at least one of the three previous years — a requirement that many fields in the Devils Lake area can’t meet.

Farmers in the Devils Lake area also are paying taxes on submerged land that generates no income, Webster says. He notes that the amount of the tax has been reduced, “which we appreciate.”

Likewise, some farmers who bought now-submerged land are making payments on it even though it doesn’t generate income, he says.

Only getting worse

People throughout the region have battled flooding this spring. For most of them, the fight is intense but temporary. Sooner or later, the water flows away or recedes.

Devils Lake flooding isn’t like that. Water levels this summer most likely will go up, not down. The problem will get worse, not better.

Darryl Biby, who farms in the Churchs Ferry area, knows that all too well.

He drives his pickup carefully through a few inches of water running over a small, rural bridge. It’s only a matter of time, he fears, before the water becomes so deep that the bridge can’t be used.

A handful of nearby bridges leading to some of his fields already are closed by rising waters. Without this bridge, he won’t be able to reach the fields.

“Maybe we can get to them (this spring) and get them planted. But if the lake keeps rising like we think it will, we won’t be able to get to them at harvest,” he says.

Not being able to plant a crop would be bad enough. Spending the time and money to plant a crop, and then stand by helplessly as it rots in the field, would be even worse.

Like other farmers in the area, Biby is frustrated that action wasn’t taken years ago to reduce water in the Devils Lake Basin.

“Things never should have reached the point they’re at now,” he says.

Hoping to survive

The long-rising Devil Lake Basin is nearing the level where water would spill out naturally and uncontrollably through the Tolna Coulee into the Sheyenne River. The last time that happened was roughly 2,000 years ago, according to the North Dakota State Water Commission website.

This spring, the state officials announced plans to build an underground pipeline to take water from Devils Lake to the Tolna Coulee.

The state also has plans to build a water control structure at Tolna Coulee and to increase the amount of water flowing from an outlet on the lake’s west end built by the state in 2005.

However, even using the most favorable projections, the two outlets combined might, at best, discharge only enough water to hold the lake’s elevation steady, says Jeff Frith, director of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board.

Far more likely is that water discharged from the two outlets will merely slow, not stop, the lake’s rise, he says.

For Webster and other farmers in the Devils Lake Basin, short-term survival is the issue.

“We know that eventually the lake will stop rising. We know that eventually it will start to drop. What we don’t know is if any of us will still be here when that happens,” Webster says.

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