Testimony of Michael J. Armstrong
Associate Director for Mitigation
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works
Regarding the Devils Lake Basin Interagency Task Force
October 23, 1997

Thank you Mr. Chairman, and other Members of the Committee, for the opportunity to testify before you today about Devils Lake. I would also like to thank Senators Conrad and Dorgan for their continued support in addressing this issue.

I sit here before you not only as the Associate Director for Mitigation at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), but also as the Chair of the Devils Lake Basin Interagency Task Force. I've served in this capacity since its establishment in 1995, when I was the FEMA Region VIII Director. At that time, I was asked by FEMA Director James Lee Witt to lead the Task Force in order to identify appropriate methods of responding to the rising lake levels in the Devils Lake Basin in North Dakota.

The mission of the Task Force was to find and propose intermediate solutions to reduce the impacts of high lake levels in the Devils Lake Basin. Intermediate solutions were defined as remedial actions that could be achieved within approximately five years -- after or along with disaster response efforts, but before the benefits from any long-term engineered solution could be realized. From the very beginning, it was recognized that to achieve this mission, the Task Force effort would require the coordinated activity and commitment of numerous Federal, State, and local government entities along with elected officials, private citizens, environmental groups, and representation from the Spirit Lake Sioux Tribe. For this reason, the Task Force has operated with one key point in mind - that any solutions to be recommended could not involve a single- agency response, but instead would require an approach that is multi-disciplinary, multi- objective, multi-agency, bottom-up, and achieved through consensus-building partnerships.

Two years have passed since I was first appointed to serve as Chair of the Task Force, and I am pleased to be able to report this approach is working. And over that time, the water levels in the Lake have increased another 7.5 feet to its present 1443 feet msl. But while lake levels have climbed, we have made great strides to coordinate and implement an appropriate response to the problems in and around Devils Lake. Since 1995, the members of the Task Force have pulled together to mitigate the flooding impacts in the Devils Lake Basin by leveraging Federal, State, and local stakeholder resources. And the results have been profound. For example:

-- All essential roads in the basin have either been raised or are being raised above the rising lake level;

-- Floodplain maps for the entire basin were developed, and all communities are now participating in the National Flood Insurance Program. In fact, to date 504 claims have been reported, helping those who were affected by the flooding to rebuild their lives. To date, this has meant an infusion of over $17 million to impacted residents;

-- Waivers of the standard flood insurance policy have been issued by FEMA in order to allow homeowners and business-owners who are threatened by imminent flooding to receive payments in advance of experiencing flood damage. These waivers have allowed 122 home- and business-owners to access the resources they needed to move out of harm's way, and 344 additional claims are pending at this time;

-- Twenty-one homes on the Spirit Lake Reservation have been relocated outside of the flood hazard area;

-- The levees around the City of Devils Lake are being raised, and internal drainage systems are being put in place;

-- Approximately 30,000 acre feet of upper basin storage has been created through various programs;

-- A series of agricultural programs have been funded and put in place to assist farmers address their losses due to flooding and for upper basin storage;

-- Twenty lift stations in Ramsey County have been elevated;

-- The sewage lagoon for the Town of Minnewaukan has been relocated;

-- Lake water quality monitoring is ongoing, and a long-term lake stabilization study is funded and underway; and -- As you all know, consideration is being given to the possibility of building an outlet from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River.

All in all, the Federal government has spent over $200 million to address issues in the Devils Lake Basin, not to mention the funds and resources brought to bear at the State and local levels. And with these resources and the commitment of all stakeholders to the process, the Task Force has had a significant and positive impact on the lives and economy of the communities surrounding Devils Lake.

One of the reasons for our success to date has been a direct result of the approach we used to identify alternatives. Unlike past attempts to address the fluctuating water levels in the Devils Lake Basin, this effort was not designed to be another study. Over 400 such studies have been pursued in the past, with little known impact on the problems at hand. Instead, our intent was to work through a process whereby all stakeholders came together to examine the problem from many angles, brainstorm alternatives, confront the differences of opinion, and reach consensus on those actions that appeared most feasible, achievable, and most likely to be effective. We did this on a large scale, and ended up producing a report of which we can all be very proud.

Through this process, we have seen an incredible development of partnerships between Federal, State and local governments. The Task Force has succeeded in creating an understanding that no one solution, or one level of government, provides all the answers. By pursuing a combination of options, including removal and floodproofing of structures, alternative land usage and water storage, rehabilitation of infrastructure, and local planning, the people of Devils Lake have sought permanent approaches to mitigation which make the region more disaster resistant.

Construction of an outlet, in a manner sensitive to environmental concerns and the downstream impacts on other communities and Canada, could complement these other efforts.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today to discuss this important issue. I would be pleased to answer any questions you may have.