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Published May 19, 2014, 09:46 AM

Devils Lake flooding still hurting farmers, ranchers

Farmers in the Devils Lake, N.D., area face another soggy growing season of unplanted fields and lost revenue, a new study shows.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Farmers in the Devils Lake, N.D., area face another soggy growing season of unplanted fields and lost revenue, a new study shows.

“It’s looking tough again. A lot (of fields) won’t get planted,” says Bill Hodous, North Dakota State University Extension Service agent for Ramsey County. The veteran Devils Lake-based agent, who’s been watching the lake rise for two decades, was involved with this year’s study.

Direct losses in 2014 are estimated at nearly $57 million, a result of wet fields on which crops can’t be planted, according to the NDSU study.

The total impact on business activity in the area is estimated at $209 million, with lost tax revenue pegged at $3 million.

Farmers around Devils Lake grow many crops, including spring wheat, soybeans, corn, edible beans, barley and canola. About half of the estimated $57 million in losses come from spring wheat and soybeans.

Devils Lake (the lake and the area’s biggest town share the name) has quadrupled in size since 1993, swamping farmland and swallowing up smaller lakes nearby. The lake has grown to about 202,000 acres, up from 44,000 acres two decades ago.

To put that in perspective, the most recent figure is about 2½ times the number of acres planted to potatoes in North Dakota last year.

Devils Lake is a closed drainage basin, which means the lake has no natural outlet. Because the Devils Lake area is relatively flat, a 1-foot rise in the lake levels floods an additional 10,000 acres.

The state of North Dakota, however, has spent about $100 million for outlet expansions that pump Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red River of the North.

The expansions and the 2012 drought raised hopes that Devils Lake flooding would moderate.

But the Sheyenne River is high this spring, which has limited how much Devils Lake water can be pumped into it, says Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource board.

Pumping water from the lake into the Sheyenne began during the week of May 12.

“We’re thankful we have it (the pumping.) And we understand why they couldn’t start sooner. We just hope it will be as aggressive as possible,” says Dan Webster, a Penn, N.D., farmer.

John Elsperger, a Cando, N.D., farmer says “there’s a good operating plan (for pumping) in place. We just need Mother Nature to cooperate.”

Timely rains, but not heavy ones, throughout the region are needed this spring and summer, he says.

Near record high

Currently, the lake stands at 1,453 feet, only a foot lower than its all-time high of 1,454.4 feet in 2011. So, flooding and unplanted fields are a concern again this year.

To make matters worse, cool, wet weather in the first half of May hampered planting in the area, officials say.

“Very little has been planted so far,” says Marvin Brekhus, manager of the Garske (N.D.) Elevator Co.

Like other officials, he says this year is shaping up a little better than 2011, generally considered the worst year overall for agriculturalists in the Devils Lake basin.

This spring, though late, isn’t as wet as the spring of 2011, Webster says.

Hodus farmed near Edmore, N.D., until quitting in 1993. Rising water levels in the Devils Lake area contributed to the decision, he says.

Hodous is uncertain how the farm bill, which Congress approved earlier this year, will affect ag producers in his area.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about it yet,” he says.

Typically, a new farm bill contains provisions that unexpectedly lead to confusion or complications later on, he and others say.

The farm bill eliminated direct payments to producers, which will reduce income for some farmers, he says.

And the per-bushel prices that farmers receive through federal crop insurance will be lower this year, reflecting lower crop prices overall, Hodous says.

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