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6/28/2006 – Editorials

By Richard Peterson


The State Health Department held a hearing in Devils Lake June 27 relating to the rules under which the state’s outlet to Devils Lake must operate. The State Water Commission (SWC) is asking for a relaxation of the water quality standards. The outlet cannot operate under the present rules because sulfate levels are too high.

I’ve been saying in this column for years that the outlet will never be able to operate anywhere near its capacity of 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) because of water quality problems. It turns out that the outlet can’t operate at all because of water quality problems. Now the State Water Commission wants to change the rules.

Let ’em, I say. Even if the rules are changed, the outlet will continue to be ineffectual. The water quality problems are pretty much insurmountable because of low flows on the Sheyenne. You understand that water in Devils Lake has more sulfates than water in the Sheyenne. Five to 10 years ago the rule of thumb was that the West Bay of the lake had water with about 500 mg/liter of sulfates and the Sheyenne had about 100 mg/liter. Since about 2002 the sulfate levels in the Sheyenne have been rising. The Sheyenne now has about 360 mg/liter of sulfates.

If sulfate levels rise above 500 mg/liter where water flows into Canada, the US could be in violation of the Boundary Waters Treaty if man has anything to do with those increased levels. If nature does it, the US is off the hook. But if a Devils Lake outlet is a contributing factor, the US government will have no choice but to step in to halt any pumping of Devils Lake water.

There’s a lot of water in the Red River in the spring and the flows from the Sheyenne would be lost in the Red River. But that’s when the outlet can’t operate because of flooding concerns in the Red River Valley. In the summertime the average annual flows on the Sheyenne are low so not much Devils Lake water can be let out to blend with Sheyenne River water.

We’ve got a $28 million boondoggle outlet that can’t operate.

But as long as we’ve spent all that money, we might as well try to use it. That’s why I’m in favor of relaxing the rules. The State Health Department will make the decision based on science and I’m sure the decision will not endanger the health of North Dakotans or Canadians.

If it is proven that salty water is migrating from the outlet channel into the surrounding farmland, the SWC should not only fix the problem, but compensate the landowners. Either that or purchase the adjoining land.

Fat chance of that. The SWC has proven it has no interest in fairness, has no consideration for the landowners and has nothing but contempt for Benson County’s wishes.


The Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board wants the nine counties in the basin to go together to buy a quarter of a million dollars worth of property in Nelson County. Benson County’s share would be $36,000. Commissioners have turned thumbs down on this plan.

The thinking is that ownership of the property by the nine counties would preclude the US Army Corps of Engineers from plugging the natural outlet on the east side of Devils Lake. Many around the lake want to clean out the coulee where water would flow out naturally. If the coulee were to be cleaned out several feet, it would cause the lake to cut down the coulee and there may be a massive outflow of water.

That water on the east side of the lake is of very poor quality. It is so loaded with sulfates, it is considered a pollutant. I think any flows out the east end of the lake would have to be stopped by the State Health Department or the State Water Commission. They would have to enforce the law.

So I think a cleanout is wishful thinking. I think it’s more likely that water will begin percolating through the soil between the lake and the coulee. This process has probably already begun. Once it’s determined that this is happening, I think the federal government will step in to stop further percolating because of the Boundary Waters Treaty. I think the federal government would order the Corps to armor the area so water can’t percolate out. If the lake rises to

1457 or so, I think the Corps would be charged with building dams to keep the water from flowing out naturally.

I see no advantage to the counties owning the property because the state and federal governments cannot allow the water to flow out naturally. By law and treaty, they would have to stop it.


There is no solution to the Devils Lake problem. The only thing we can do is build higher dikes to protect the city of Devils Lake because it would simply cost too much to move the town. Everywhere else, we will have to do what the Indians have always done. Get out of the way of the lake when it threatens.

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