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Published November 20, 2009, 09:12 PM

Belford Wants End to Devils Lake Disputes

By: Blake Nicholson, AP

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A Ramsey County commissioner who has become the most recognizable advocate of the Devils Lake outlet said he thinks a commission with both North Dakota and Manitoba officials is needed to settle longstanding disagreements surrounding the floodwater diversion channel.

Joe Belford said Thursday that he plans to ask Gov. John Hoeven to set up such a group.

Water officials in the Canadian province of Manitoba did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Devils Lake has more than tripled in size since the early 1990s because of a series of wet years, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the region in northeast North Dakota.

A $28 million state-built outlet drains a small amount of floodwaters into the Sheyenne River and ultimately the Red River, which flows north into Canada. North Dakota health officials are considering operating changes that would allow for increased flows — a move Manitoba and some downstream landowners and governments in North Dakota oppose because they fear flooding and degradation of water quality.

The disagreements with Manitoba have lingered for years. Provincial officials are pressing their federal government to take the latest dispute to the International Joint Commission, a group that has representatives of both countries and referees boundary water disputes.

North Dakota has never agreed with a Canadian request to bring a Devils Lake issue to the international commission, and Belford said he does not think it is a viable option for what he is seeking.

"The IJC has never done anything in a hurry," he said. "We've got to have a group that's going to move forward. This (lake) is at the point now where it's a hazard not only to (the city of) Devils Lake but to downstream."

The lake hit a record level of 1,450.72 feet last summer, and if it rises another seven feet it will spill out of the basin naturally through a coulee on the lake's east end. That would mean the flow of water downstream on the Sheyenne would not be controlled, as it is now through the west-end manmade outlet.

"We've got to do something different than we're doing now," Belford said. "We're not getting any place."

Belford said he would prefer that negotiating be done through an expansion of an existing group such as the Devils Lake Outlet Advisory Committee — an oversight group that includes a variety of North Dakota officials but no Canadians. However, Belford said a new commission would not be out of the question.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Hoeven, said Friday that such a move would require legislative approval and that the governor has always "tried to keep the lines of communication open" with Manitoba officials.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.