OPENING STATEMENT BY SENATOR JOHN H. CHAFEE
HEARING BEFORE THE COMMITTEE ON ENVIRONMENT AND PUBLIC WORKS
ON DEVILS LAKE, NORTH DAKOTA
October 23, 1997

This morning the Committee will receive testimony on proposed solutions to the flooding at Devils Lake, North Dakota. The overall Devils Lake basin, which encompasses some thirty-eight hundred square miles in the northeastern part of the state, is a closed subbasin of the Red River- Hudson Bay drainage system.

As a result of the five-year wet cycle in the region, Devils Lake has risen some sixteen feet since 1993 to its present level of fourteen hundred and thirty-eight feet above mean sea level. During this period, Devils Lake has doubled in size and tripled in volume.

The situation at Devils Lake is most unusual. The Lake is found in one of only two closed basins in North America Utah's Great Salt Lake basin being the other. Carved into the prairie by glaciers during the Ice Age, the low-lying land has no natural outlet for the water that drains into it from the north.

Indeed, according to the 1995 Report of the Devils Lake Basin Interagency Task Force, no water has left the Devils Lake Basin in recorded history (since the 1830s). Instead, the Basin's surface runoff flows southward through many small streams and lakes and is collected by Devils Lake and the smaller, nearby Stump Lake. There it remains until it evaporates or enters the groundwater table.

Geological evidence shows that the water level in Devils Lake has fluctuated dramatically (from completely dry about fourteen hundred feet to overflowing into the Sheyenne River at about fourteen hundred and fifty-seven feet) over the last ten thousand years.

Records from the first European settlement of the area indicate that the lake level in the 1830s was above fourteen hundred and forty feet. That level dropped over time to reach a low of fourteen hundred and two feet in 1940, rose again to fourteen hundred and twenty-nine feet in 1987, and dropped back to fourteen hundred and twenty-three feet in 1991. As I stated a moment ago, the lake level now stands at fourteen hundred and thirty-eight feet.

As we will learn today, the people who have settled this area have long struggled with the problems presented by the unpredictable changes in the level of Devils Lake. In the current cycle, rising lake waters have caused some one hundred million dollars in damage to development and crop lands that had existed on dry areas during decades of low water.

To help stem further flood damages and to prevent the lake from overtopping, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has embarked upon a plan with state and local agencies that includes the construction of a lake outlet. The proposed outlet would periodically drain excess water from Devils Lake into the Sheyenne and Red Rivers. The Devils Lake outlet and associated federal water projects will be our focus today.

In March of this year, the President requested authorization and funding for the Devils Lake outlet as part of the FY97 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations bill. The estimated total cost for the outlet is fifty million dollars, sixty-five percent of which (or thirty-two and one-half million dollars) would be financed by the federal government. This request was denied by Congress, however, five million dollars was included for Army Corps planning and design work.

The same request for construction authorization and funding was advanced by the Administration and the North Dakota congressional delegation as part of the FY98 Army Corps appropriations bill. Once again, the specific request was denied by Congress in the recently approved Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act. However, under an agreement reached between myself, other members of the Committee, the North Dakota delegation, and the Appropriations Committee, P.L. 105-62 does include five million dollars to initiate outlet construction if a handful of criteria are met.

Briefly, the recently enacted provision requires the Secretary of Army to make a determination that an emergency exists (as defined by the Stafford Act) with respect to the need for the outlet. I understand that Dr. Zirschky (zer-ski) has just recently made such determination. In addition, the Secretary must report to Congress that the project is technically sound, economically justified and environmentally acceptable and in full compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

The agreed upon language also specifies that the project will be carried out in a matter consistent with the terms of the "Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909" and finally that the ongoing Army Corps feasibility study shall not examine lake stabilization or inlet controls.

The reason for our including these requirements is simple and fair: such determinations are required for all other water resources projects recommended by the Army Corps of Engineers. While the dire situation at Devils Lake unquestionably requires swift action, it has not yet been demonstrated by the Army Corps that the proposed outlet is technically sound, economically justified and environmentally acceptable.

The standard Army Corps feasibility study and Report by the Chief of Engineers, which customarily include such requisite analysis, have not been completed in this case. To definitively respond to the water quality and water quantity concerns expressed by the Canadian government, certain local citizens and neighboring states -- plans for the Devils Lake outlet must undergo appropriate scrutiny.

With that, I want to welcome our witnesses. We are joined by our colleagues from North Dakota Senators Conrad and Dorgan and Representative Earl Pomeroy. Later we will hear from Army Corps and FEMA representatives as well as two residents of North Dakota.

I want to note that we invited Governor Ed Schafer to appear today. He worked hard to shift preexisting commitments in the State, but was unable to be here. Testifying in his absence is the State Engineer from North Dakota, Mr. Sprynczynatyk (sprin-zen-nattick). I met with Governor Schafer a few weeks ago and know how committed he is to the efforts at Devils Lake.