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Published January 13, 2011, 03:15 PM

Proposal Includes $5M For East Devils Lake Flood

A water-control structure should be built quickly near Devils Lake to ease a looming threat that its salty water will overflow into the Sheyenne River and cause widespread flooding downstream, North Dakota's chief engineer told lawmakers Thursday.

By: Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A water-control structure should be built quickly near Devils Lake to ease a looming threat that its salty water will overflow into the Sheyenne River and cause widespread flooding downstream, North Dakota's chief engineer told lawmakers Thursday.

"We've really got to go full speed ahead right now," Todd Sando told the North Dakota Senate's Natural Resources Committee.

The panel is considering legislation to authorize the state Water Commission to spend $5 million on the design and construction of a structure southeast of Devils Lake that would control water flows into the Tolna Coulee, which is a natural outlet into the Sheyenne. The full Senate will vote on the measure later.

Sando said recent heavy snows in the lake's drainage area in northeastern North Dakota have boosted the odds that it could rise as much as three feet within the next year.

On Thursday, the lake's level stood at 1,451.6 feet above sea level. If it reaches 1,458 feet, water will begin spilling from its east end into the Sheyenne, which flows through southeastern North Dakota, including the cities of Valley City and Lisbon.

An unusually large rainstorm or snowfall "will get us really close to naturally overflowing," Sando said. "It is that critical right now."

The lake is a closed basin, fed by rain, snow and water runoff. Its water levels often fluctuate. It has both overflowed into the Sheyenne and shrunk to almost nothing during its history, geological reports say. Since the early 1990s, it has risen almost 30 feet.

The Sheyenne River flows through southeastern North Dakota before it turns north and joins the Red River near Fargo. The Red flows north into Lake Winnipeg, in Manitoba.

Because the Sheyenne is a tributary of the Red River, its flow and water quality is the subject of intense interest in Minnesota and Manitoba, along with the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks along the Minnesota border. Water from Devils Lake's east end is high in sulfates, which can give water a bitter, unpleasant taste.

Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, who was chairman of a legislative committee that examined the Devils Lake problem in the run-up to the 2011 Legislature, said the control structure near its east end was urgently needed.

"I believe that if we don't do something immediately, we're facing a catastrophe that affects 44 percent of the people in the state of North Dakota," Fischer said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple's budget recommendations to the Legislature ask for improvements to a water outlet on Devils Lake's west end to allow it to pump up to 350 cubic feet of water per second, an increase from the present 250 cubic feet per second. Dalrymple also wants to build a second outlet on Devils Lake's east end that would move as much as 200 cubic feet per second.

Even those improvements cannot move water out of Devils Lake faster than it comes in when there is an abnormally large amount of snow or rain, Sando said.

"We felt we could keep up with the average wet cycle," he said. "We just keep getting dealt tremendous flood events."

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