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6/3/2009 – Editorials

By Richard Peterson

In this column last week I explained why taking water off Devils Lake on the eastern end of the lake is not feasible. The water on the east side is too salty to put into the Sheyenne River. If an expensive water treatment plant were built on the east side, then water could be discharged into the Tolna Coulee and thence into the Sheyenne River. But the amount of water that could be let out would be limited because the Sheyenne River can’t carry great amounts of water without spilling out of its banks. A water treatment plant on the east end of Devils Lake might not be effective in alleviating flooding on the lake.

Richard Betting advocates plugging all the drains in the upper basin and ponding water north of the lake before it gets to the lake.

Evaporation will be increased because the water will be spread out over a greater surface and the lake will stop its rise.

Now I’ll give Betting credit because he’s been pretty accurate in his predictions about the Devils Lake Outlet. But he’s wrong when he says upper basin drainage is the cause of the lake’s rise. Drainage aggravates the problem, but it is not the cause. The cause is the wet cycle we’re experiencing. More water is simply falling on us in the form of rain and snow.

Back in the 1950’s when I was a teenager on the farm in Aurora Township, a one-inch rain was rare. It was a big deal. A quarter inch or half an inch were about what a normal rain brought. Today we frequently get two inches and more from a rain.

Plugging those drains north of the lake undoubtedly would help. But the reality is that we would only succeed in spreading the flood to that area. Instead of producing grain on that land, farmers would be ponding water. And what happens when water ponds on farmland? Salt leaches from the soil and comes to the surface. So farmers would be ponding increasingly salty water.

In the 10,000 year history of the lake since it was carved out by a glacier, geologists have discovered the lake overflowed into the Sheyenne on several occasions. That was long before one drain was dug north of the lake. That is proof that drainage is not the cause of the lake’s flooding. If the wet cycle continues, even those plugged drains would eventually overflow and send increasingly salty water into the lake.

Plugging those drains and stopping all drainage, would, as I said earlier, help slow down the rise of the lake. You might think that putting a few farmers out of business to benefit everyone else around the lake is a small price to pay.

In reality, it’s a big price. Betting says there are 350,000 acres of drained sloughs north of the lake. He thinks they should be filled with water instead of being farmed. What would that mean as far as the economy of the area is concerned?

According to NDSU the average wheat yield for this area is about 37 bushels per acre. At a price of $6.21 per bushel that brings in a gross income of $230 per acre. Multiply $230 by 350,000 acres and you get $80,500,000 in lost revenue per year. Every year.

There’s a multiplier effect as well. Farmers in the northern basin will spend $7,000,000 less on seed, $4,725,000 less on herbicides, $1,750,000 less on fungicides, $16,863,000 less on fertilizer, $5,355,000 less on crop insurance, $5,540,500 less on fuel and lubricants, $3,983,000 less on repairs, $1,711,500 less on interest and $525,000 less on miscellaneous expenses. They won’t be spending money on machinery, either. And they won’t be getting their estimated net income of $10,780,000. I didn’t figure in the cost of the land, miscellaneous overhead (including taxes) or machinery investment and depreciation. When all those items are included, the NDSU Farm Management Planning Guide reveals an economic loss of $80,500,000 annually.

Plus some governmental body would have to hire an army of people to make certain the drains remain plugged. Taxes to the counties in the basin would be reduced severely. It would be very, very expensive and disruptive to every machinery dealer in the area, to say nothing of losses to those who sell seed, fertilizer, fuel, insurance, chemicals, etc.

Of course those losses are piling up right now as a result of farmers being flooded by the Mauvais Coulee, which is now, in reality, a part of Devils Lake. Ditto for the farmers around Lake Irvine, Lake Alice and Dry Lake. Their land is fast becoming part of Devils Lake.

An east end outlet is simply not feasible because of water quality issues. A west end outlet has proven to be no solution because of water quality and water quantity issues. Upper basin storage is not feasible because of the enormous economic cost.

I have said repeatedly that there is no solution to the Devils Lake problem. Every solution brings its own unique problems that make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement.

I have said repeatedly that the best we can do is to protect the city of Devils Lake with dikes and get out of the way of the lake everywhere else. It’s not a solution, but it’s the best we can do.

If the wet cycle continues and the lake threatens to flow out naturally, I think the state and federal governments will halt that in a quick hurry and we’ll be forced to drink more water. Minnewaukan will be gone well before that time. There will be water everywhere from a few miles north of Tolna to a few miles south of Cando.

If the lake rises to an elevation above 1460 there will be so many places it can flow out that even the federal government probably won’t be able to stop it. Look out, Valley City.

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