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NWS: Devils Lake likely will reach all-time high this year

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NWS: Devils Lake likely will reach all-time high this year
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A recent National Weather Service forecast of a 90 percent chance that Devils Lake will reach an all-time high elevation this year -- creating severe flood risks for the city of Devils Lake, the Spirit Lake Nation and other areas -- is based on nearly 60 years of climatological data.


"We seldom see such a high probability of exceeding record levels," Scott Dummer, hydrologist in charge at the National Weather Service's North Central River Forecast Center, Chanhassen, Minn., testified Tues-day at a hearing on Devils Lake flooding before the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommit-tee, chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Dorgan conducted the hearing to determine what action must be taken to protect residents of the Devils Lake Basin from rising waters. The hearing also addressed the threat of spring flooding in the Red River Valley.

"You can't control Mother Nature," Dorgan said. "The key thing here is to try to understand what's necessary and what we can do to alert everybody, the (Army Corps of Engineers) and the cities, and cross our fingers and hope that the preparation helps avoid substantial damage if we have a major event."

The recent NWS report forecast a 90 percent chance that Devils Lake will rise more than three feet this year -- to 1,450 feet above sea level, and a significant chance it will rise even higher.

The lake, which reached a record elevation of 1,449.2 feet in May 2006, rose about 25 in 13 years since 1993, quadrupling in size. The 15-year flood fight already has cost nearly $600 million, to pay for raising roads and protecting utilities such as sewer systems, water sources and electrical power lines. The latest count is a bout 220 homes or businesses that have been relocated, some of them more than once.

Now sitting at an elevation of about 1,447.1 feet above sea level, the NWS says there's a 99-percent probability the lake will surpass the 2006 mark, a 90 percent chance it will rise at least three feet, and a 50 percent probability that it will rise four feet.

It lists a 25 percent chance the lake will exceed 1,452.1 feet, and a 2 percent chance it will exceed 1,454 feet -- one foot below the elevation of major roads and levees in the basin.

"At this time, it is not possible to forecast how much additional snow will fall before the start of the normal melt cycle, but historically, an additional 20 to 25 inches of snow can be expected to fall by the end of March," Dummer said. "By incorporating the past 58 years of climatological data, the outlooks already take into account the threat of above-average precipitation."

Dorgan said the hearing was a chance to demonstrate what is at stake, if the lake reaches these levels.

Col. Jon Christensen, St. Paul District commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, testified that an-other Devils Lake levee raise and extension is a priority and that design and levee alignment work already is under way.

"If the lake would move to 1,454 in this year, how quickly would you have to move," Dorgan asked.

"It will take two to three years to complete the project, if we begin this fall," Christensen said. "We'd have to start, at the latest, this fall, if we get to 1,454."

"That would build levies around Devils Lake, but it wouldn't protect the city of Minnewaukan, or other areas outside of the city of Devils Lake," he said.

Here is some other testimony presented at the hearing:

- If Devils Lake rises four feet, to 1,451, the current surface area of 140,000 acres would devour another 33,000 acres of land, much of it prime farmland, according to State Engineer Dale Frink.

- The Devils Lake levee system, already raised to 1,455 feet, with five more feet of freeboard, already has cost $54 million. Preliminary estimates for future levee work range from $73 million for another five-foot raise, and nearly $150 million for a 10-foot rise to 1,465 feet, Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott testified. The city of Devils Lake has about 7,200 residents.

Geologists say the lake will spill over to the Sheyenne River at 1,459 feet, which has happened at least twice in the past 4,000 years.

- Spirit Lake Nation, with approximately 6,500 enrolled members, already has lost more than 8,465 acres of land -- at an estimated value of about $3 million -- in the past 12 years. Tribal Chairwoman Myra Pearson submitted testimony that another three-foot rise would swallow another 859 acres.

"Elders age 75 and older have told us that water is standing in places they have never seen it in their life-time," she testified.

More than 450 families on the reservation are waiting for housing availability as rising groundwater levels and spreading surface water damage homes, threaten lagoons and sewer systems.

Several Bureau of Indian Affairs roads are acting as temporary dikes. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is beginning a $10 million project this spring to address the roads-as-dams problem.

"Spirit Lake relies almost entirely on the city of Devils Lake for its retail needs," the Devils Lake mayor testified. "It would be an extreme hardship if area residents, including the Spirit Lake Tribe, had to travel 90 miles for shopping access.

- Camp Grafton, a national military training center operated by the North Dakota National Guard, located along the lake, could be isolated. N.D. Highway 20, which connects Camp Grafton to the city of Devils Lake, currently is built to an elevation of 1,452 feet. Plans are to raise the road to 1,455 feet, to match other state highways and other major roads.

The camp trained about 3,200 regular U.S. Army and Reserve soldiers in 2008.

- At 1,452 feet, railroad beds in the Churchs Ferry area could be abandoned, according to Frink. That might lead to the rerouting of Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railway freight traffic and Amtrak passenger service south to Surrey, N.D., near Minot, to railroad tracks along I-94. That could threaten freight and pas-senger service not only to Devils Lake, but to Grand Forks.

Bott said the city of Devils Lake lacks the financial resources to pay for the local 25-percent share of much of the work that is needed. He said the city will need more help from the federal government.

Dorgan said that's the main purpose of the hearing -- to paint a realistic picture of what it will take to pro-tect people and property in the Devils Lake Basin, and to demonstrate the need for federal help.

He said he would contact Gov. John Hoeven, to see if North Dakota can create an emergency fund to help deal with flooding and other water emergencies in the state.

"We have the only lake flooding in the United States, and we've spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. And it's getting worse, not better," he said. "We want to be very careful when making estimates, but we want to be on the right side of preparedness."