By Richard Peterson
I went on a tour sponsored by the North Dakota Water Education Foundation and the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board last week. The tour featured the Devils Lake flooding situation.
I’m familiar with the Devils Lake situation, so there wasn’t much I hadn’t seen or heard about before.
But there were some interesting aspects of the trip. I had never been on the county line road between Benson and Nelson Counties. The natural outlet from Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee is located right in that neighborhood and its location is obvious when someone points it out.
The natural outlet is a valley that was carved out by great quantities of water at some time in the past. It is estimated that the last time Devils Lake and Stump Lake flowed into the Sheyenne River was 800 to 1,000 years ago.
Today, it’s generally accepted that the outflow level of the lake would be 1459 (it’s presently at about 1447). So on the surface it appears the lake would have to rise another 12 feet to flow out naturally. But not so fast. That valley has been filled with sediment and sand up to 18 feet deep over the centuries. Excavations by geologists have confirmed that the lowest outlet level without sediment was about 1442 — five feet lower than the lake is today!
Ben Varnson of Lakota, chairman of the State Water Commission, advocates a $4 million cleanout of the this valley so the water can flow naturally into the Sheyenne.
When I stated that the water quality was not good enough to allow it to be sent into the Sheyenne, Varnson countered that the only other alternative is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect the city of Devils Lake and buy out areas which will be flooded. A controlled flow on the east end would be far more acceptable than an uncontrolled flow.
So on the surface this looks like a viable solution. The cleanout of the Tolna Coulee would be good for Benson and Ramsey Counties, but there would be tremendous damage to areas downstream. The water supply of Valley City and Lisbon would be severely impacted. That won’t be free. And taxpayers may be stuck with even more expense if the lake rises to its flow-out level (it probably won’t be at 1459, but several feet below that figure because of seepage through the sandy soil of the valley).
Varnson’s observations are correct, but don’t look for the Tolna Coulee cleanout to happen. It would be illegal. The water in Stump Lake is so high in sulfates it is considered a pollutant. The state cannot allow this water to spill into the Sheyenne River. If the state did allow it, the feds would put a stop to it because it would violate the Boundary Waters Treaty with Canada. It may be an obvious solution, but it ain’t gonna happen.
We hear Richard Betting advocating shutting all the drains north of the lake and forcing farmers there to pond the water. This is a short-sighted solution which only spreads the flood across thousands of acres of productive farmland.
The drains are not causing the flood. To be sure, the drains aggravate the problem because they allow water to get to the lake sooner than it ordinarily would have. The ponding would also help remove some of the water through evaporation. But remember, the lake overflowed before any of those drains were installed. And ponding the water will result in salts leaching out of the soil into the water.
When the water finally reaches Devils Lake it will be even more saline than it is today, resulting in a concentration of salts in the lake. That’s inviting a fish kill similar to what happened in Devils Lake in 1889.
The Devils Lake dilemma simply has no solution. The best we can do is protect the city of Devils Lake with dikes and raise essential roads above the water as necessary. Everybody else has to get out of the way.
The other thing that made an impression on me was the machinery alongside the "Tired Out Ranch" northeast of Warwick. Cory Christofferson is being forced by the State Health Department to bury the tires he’s using as fences. Hundreds of thousands of tires that he had recycled into fences.
But no, the State Health Department said the tires will result in mosquitoes and rodents. I think it may result in more mosquitoes in that area, but who are they going to bite? Christofferson and his family. They’re the only ones living there. It’s unlikely the mosquitoes will migrate to the city of Devils Lake to wreak havoc there. Rodents, if they become a problem, can be handled in many ways.
I haven’t noticed that the State Health Department is requiring Christofferson or his neighbors to drain the sloughs which are certainly more inviting habitat for mosquitoes than tires. The State Health Department insists the tires are a hazard. They might catch on fire. Can you imagine? Have you ever tried to start a tire on fire without gasoline? It’s just ridiculous.
I am a despised liberal who rejects the notion that government is inherently bad. It can be bad, but it can also be good. Here is a case conservatives love. It is a classic case of bad government.
Nothing is going to stop the out-of-control State Health Department from imposing its rules. I had hoped Gov. John Hoeven would step in to put a stop to this nonsense. He didn’t.
As a result Christofferson is being forced to spend thousands of dollars to destroy the fences he built from recycled tires. What a waste!