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Published May 16, 2011, 03:35 PM

Hundreds Turn Out for Tolna Coulee Rally

Hundreds of shovel-ready demonstrators gathered at the natural outlet of swollen Devils Lake on Monday in a symbolic show of support for digging out the area known as the Tolna Coulee.

By: Associated Press, WDAZ

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. (AP) — Hundreds of shovel-ready demonstrators gathered at the natural outlet of swollen Devils Lake on Monday in a symbolic show of support for digging out the area known as the Tolna Coulee.

Members of Citizens United to Regain Equity, or CURE, believe that lowering the coulee would be cheaper and more effective than the state's plan for an east-end outlet. One of the organizers, Nelson County Commissioner Dan Marquart, said he was overwhelmed by the crowd.

"With a turnout like this, you could do it by hand," he said, referring to removing ground from the coulee.

Devils Lake has quadrupled in size since 1993, due to a series of wet years. It has swallowed up more than 160,000 acres of prime farm and pasture land. It is 2 feet above last year's record elevation and less than 4 feet from the spill elevation.

One of the demonstrators, Lee Gessner, 43, said it was his dream to take over his father's farm, which he did. Now the water is taking over. He's lost about 1,000 acres of his land near the town of Penn.

"We had been losing a little bit at a time. This year it has really gone bad on me," Gessner said.

Jennifer Parker, 34, painted a sign that said "Ready" and attached it to her shovel.

"Ready, dig," she said, asked to explain the meaning. "I hope we can make a difference. When people get together, things get done."

Many residents exchanged stories about the trials of navigating an area with washed-out roads and bridges. In order to get to his farm house, Chad Hoffart must drive a 4-wheeled ATV for 31/2 miles, take a duck boat guided by rope for 300 feet, and walk a quarter of a mile to a vehicle that takes him the rest of the way.

"People say they don't want our water," Hoffart said. "But it's not my water."

Lee Williams, 59, a fourth-generation farmer in the area, said he has lost his house and farm buildings and much of his land to the rising water. He wore a T-shirt that showed a map of the area and read, "Stop the Stupidity. Use the Stump Lake Outlet."

Williams said he wasn't sure if government officials were listening.

"That's the problem. You don't see the political folks here today," he said. "We've been watching the government screw this up for 18 years."

Jeff Zent, a spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple, said the governor sent a liaison to attend the rally.

"Gov. Dalrymple understands the concern and frustration of the people in the Devils Lake basin," Zent said. "They continue to lose access to their homes and they continue to lose thousands of acres of productive farmland and their livelihoods to rising waters."

Zent said Dalrymple is working with federal agencies and the state Water Commission on an "aggressive timetable" to stop the lake from rising, including an outlet and pipeline project on the east side of the lake and a control structure at Tolna Coulee. The outlet project is expected to cost between $62 million and $90 million and be completed in spring 2012, Zent said.

State officials believe that digging out the coulee for an uncontrolled release would lead to delays for environmental studies and potential lawsuits.

Marquart said an outlet that lowers the lake by 6 inches a year won't help when the lake is rising 2 feet a year.

"Some say there is no end in sight. The end is in sight. You're looking at it. The Tolna Coulee," Marquart said to a cheering crowd.

He ended his speech by telling supporters, "Gravity is free."

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