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9/12/2007 – Editorials

By Richard Peterson


Ho, hum. We have another tiresome letter from Richard Betting in the paper this week.

Betting once again says the drains north of the lake should be plugged to keep water from running into the lake. Yes, this would help on a short-term basis. It would take longer for the water to get to the lake, which is at the bottom of the Devils Lake Basin. There would be more surface area for the water and more evaporation would take place.

In the meantime, we would have spread the flood to thousands and thousands of acres of productive farmland north of the lake. It would be a severe financial blow to the area and dozens of individual farmers would be ruined.

Remember, too, that the lake filled many times in the past 10,000 years and flowed into Stump Lake. It even overflowed into the Sheyenne River before farming began in this area, before any drains were installed. If the wet cycle continues, taking all that farmland out of production would be for nothing because the lake is liable to threaten to overflow into the Sheyenne. Note that there are two big ifs in that last sentence. If the wet cycle continues and if the lake threatens to overflow into the Sheyenne.

If that happens, the federal government will likely take over, armor the natural outlet on the east end of the lake and make those of us living here drink more water. The feds will not allow a natural and uncontrolled spill from Devils Lake into the Sheyenne because it would cause serious flooding downstream and violate the Boundary Waters Treaty with Canada. You can bet on that!

There would likely be federal buyouts if the federal government intervenes with nature. It’s just a shame that the farmers around the lake who have had to take all the water so far haven’t been compensated for their losses.

On the other hand, the wet cycle could end next year and then our lake worries will be over. Except that everyone in the state will have to deal with drought. The tourism industry will dry up along with the lake. Fish will die as they did before because of high concentrations of salts in the lake. Remember that the lake was devoid of fish until the 1960’s. Minnewaukan Flats will be a horrible, stinking mess for years to come. Ditto for all the lake east of ND 57, Six Mile Bay and Creel Bay. Believe me, it would be worse than too much water.

This is all speculation. Nobody knows what the lake is going to do.

But Betting’s plan to plug all the drains is short-sighted, impractical and downright unneighborly.

I’ll give him this, though. He was mostly right about the west end man-made outlet. It’s worthless. I paid attention to what Betting and others said back then and finally came to the conclusion they were right and all our elected officials were wrong. I stated in this column Sept. 12, 2001 (before a spade of dirt was turned for the

outlet) that the outlet would be ineffective because of water quality and quantity problems. As usual, nobody listened to a silly little newspaper editor in Minnewaukan, North Dakota.

I only got the attention of the powers that be on one occasion.

In this column I asked many times who was going to pay the operating and maintenance cost of the outlet. Typically, my question was ignored.

Fearing the state would require people in the basin to pay the operating and maintenance cost of the outlet because we would be the "beneficiaries," I figured out how much each county would have to pay annually if a million dollars were to be spread across the basin in property taxes. Then I sent that information in letters to the editor of every newspaper in the basin.

Shortly after those letters appeared in those newspapers, I finally got my answer. Sensing a revolt was brewing, State Engineer Dale Frink announced the state would pick up the operating and maintenance costs. I was pleased.

At least our county commissioners, who had the foresight to oppose the outlet from the beginning, wouldn’t have to place a mill levy on county residents for the "benefits" the outlet would provide.

Betting also argues that operation of the outlet should be halted because of the damage it will cause. Poppycock! Under the constraints rightly imposed by the State Health Department, the outlet can’t remove enough water to do harm to the Sheyenne or Canada or anybody.

Betting tries to have it both ways, saying the outlet is ineffective and at the same time that it will cause great damage downstream.

He is right that the operation of the outlet should be halted, however. It is completely ineffective as far as preventing flooding is concerned. Those who so forcefully back the outlet say that removing even a fraction of an inch is better than nothing. No it isn’t! It isn’t cost-effective to spend a million dollars a year for an insignificant result.

Why then are we spending $1 million a year to operate it? Because the politicians have invested their prestige by backing the outlet without reservation. They can’t afford to admit they made a $28 million mistake.

Now, I have to temper that criticism with reality. At the time there was a lot of pressure to do something. Anything. Do something in-stead of just talking. Gov. Hoeven saw political reality and so did every elected official in North Dakota, except our Benson County Commissioners. If the politicians hadn’t stepped forward to build the outlet the pressure would have eventually been impossible to resist.

Politically the outlet had to be built.

Thelma Paulson of Maddock was right all along, but that didn’t do her any good in the face of political reality.

More politics: Canadian politicians know that the anemic, ineffective outlet can only drain insignificant amounts of water from the lake.

But the political demagoguery Premier Gary Doer can employ in attacking the outlet is just like manna from heaven for him.

The state could take Doer’s manna away from him and save $1 million a year at the same time by shutting down the outlet. Think it’ll happen?

Maybe when pigs fly.


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