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The New Orleans of the Great Plains

North Dakota State Roundup

July 1, 2008

The New Orleans of the Great Plains

While lakes and rivers in other parts of North Dakota are shrinking from dry conditions, Devils Lake keeps rising higher and higher, and that continues to have significant financial consequences for government at all levels.

Devils Lake has been on the rise since 1993, when it entered what geologists call a wet cycle, or above-average precipitation. The problem is that it is a terminal lake, meaning that is has no natural outlets. The lake level rises as it absorbs more water as the region's catch basin. Over the past decade and a half, the lake has risen 25 feet, ballooning it to an estimated 140,000 acres.

But a U.S. Geological Survey representative testified at a Senate subcommittee meeting in March that the lake stood about a 70 percent chance of continuing to rise over the coming decade and a 30 percent chance of rising for the next three decades.

Local, state and federal governments have reportedly spent more than $500 million to repair and raise roads, relocate homes and other infrastructure and protect the city of Devils Lake, which is roughly 90 miles west of Grand Forks. About half that amount has been spent on levees, other infrastructure and emergency protection measures for the city, according to an official from the state's Water Commission.

More spending will be necessary if the lake rises. A federal highway official estimated that further relocation of roads would cost about $280 million, according to local news reports. The mayor of Devils Lake estimated that future levee work might cost $100 million.

This spring, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it would spend $5 million on a study to look at flood-protection options for the lake's entire basin. U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad also entered the fray when he announced that the newest farm bill, passed in May, included provisions that allow affected landowners to sign up for the wetlands portion of the Conservation Reserve Program.

The state is also looking to renew a permit that allows it to operate an artificial outlet into the Stump River. Constructed in 2005 at a cost of $28 million, it has operated sporadically since then because lake levels have fallen slightly, and the outlet cannot be operated when certain environmental conditions exist, like high sulfate levels.

Ronald A. Wirtz