Statement of Senator Kent Conrad
Before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
The Proposed Flood Control Project at Devils Lake, North Dakota
October 23, 1997
406 Dirksen Senate Office Building

Mr. Chairman, I appreciate the opportunity to come before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to stress the emergency nature of the flooding at Devils Lake, North Dakota and the importance of an emergency outlet to combat this flood.

We have faced a continuing disaster at Devils Lake since North Dakota entered a wet weather cycle in the spring of 1993. Since that time, above-average precipitation has caused the lake to more than double in size and triple in volume. The lake has risen 20 feet since 1993, rising 5 feet this year alone and has expanded from 40,000 acres only four years ago to nearly 105,000 acres today. To put this in some perspective, Devils Lake has grown to nearly 200 square miles, almost three times the size of the District of Columbia. Even more alarming, experts tell us the lake will grow nearly two and a half times larger before it finds its natural outlet.

Mr. Chairman, this is a massive lake that is inundating homes, roads and other infrastructure, productive farmland and is threatening the City of Devils Lake. Already over 200 homes have been moved from the encroaching lakeshore. More dramatic, emergency management officials have had to burn some homes to keep debris out of the lake because the water is rising faster than homes can be moved.

The main road connecting the Spirit Lake Nation reservation to the City of Devils Lake is underwater. This forces residents of the reservation to travel an additional 50 miles for medical and emergency services in the City of Devils Lake, which is the regional economic and health care hub. Also, the rising waters are threatening the nearly 9,000 residents of Devils Lake. The top of the levee protecting the City of Devils Lake is currently only two feet above the water level and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is frantically trying to raise this dike five feet to prepare for continued flooding next spring.

Mr. Chairman, the Federal Emergency Management Agency established the Devils Lake Basin Interagency Task Force in 1995 to identify ways to combat this flood. Federal, state and local government officials are now aggressively implementing the comprehensive flood-fighting strategy developed by the Task Force. This comprehensive approach includes a three-pronged strategy: 1) upper-basin water storage; 2) infrastructure protection and relocation of structures (such as the levees currently under construction); and 3) an emergency outlet from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River. Implemented independently, none of these elements can solve this flood disaster. But each is a critical element of the overall strategy to combat this flood.

Water storage is important to slow run-off into the lake and increase the rate of evaporation. Senator Dorgan, Congressman Pomeroy and I secured changes to the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to make it better suited to the needs of landowners in the Devils Lake basin. The Secretary of Agriculture named the entire Prairie Pothole Region, including the Devils Lake basin, as a National Conservation Priority Area and modified the enrollment of shallow water areas in CRP to address water retention around Devils Lake.

Efforts are continuing to protect infrastructure in the basin. The Federal Highway Administration has committed $68 million to the Devils Lake region to keep the road system operational. FHWA is coordinating with the North Dakota Department of Transportation to construct a bridge connecting the Spirit Lake Nation to the City of Devils Lake. Also, as I mentioned, over 200 homes have been moved or destroyed and the Corps is raising the dike protecting the residents of Devils Lake.

An emergency outlet from Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River is an essential element of this comprehensive strategy. Devils Lake is currently at a level of 1442.6 feet. As the water continues to rise, it will eventually flow to the east into Stump Lake at 1446.6 feet, immediately raising that lake 40 feet. When the water rises to 1457 feet, it will spill uncontrolled into the Sheyenne River from the part of the lake with the worst water quality. An emergency outlet is necessary to provide a controlled release of water from Devils Lake that will not harm water quality downstream.

Officials from the Corps inform us that under the normal study process, an outlet will take six to ten years to complete. Unfortunately, we cannot wait six to ten years. This is an emergency situation that requires an emergency response.

The operation of the outlet will not injure downstream interests, including communities along the Sheyenne and Red Rivers in North Dakota and Minnesota and the Province of Manitoba. In fact, the Corps held numerous public meetings in downstream communities to discuss the emergency outlet plan. Devils Lake and the outlet route are contained wholly within the Red River watershed, so there is no transbasin transfer of water or interaction with the Missouri River watershed. The outlet will be operated so as not to exacerbate downstream flooding or worsen water quality for downstream communities.

The emergency outlet is a cost-effective flood control project. To date, the Federal government has spent over $210 million to combat this flood. Officials from the Corps of Engineers estimate that as the lake rises to 1457 feet, total cumulative damages will reach nearly $450 million. Estimated total cost for the outlet is less than $45 million, cost-shared at a rate of 65 percent federal, 35 percent nonfederal. Both the Corps and the Office of Management and Budget have endorsed federal expenditures for an outlet now to avoid additional federal expenditures later.

Further, the emergency outlet from Devils Lake will be constructed and operated in an environmentally-sensitive manner. The Fiscal Year 1998 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill includes $5 million for construction of an outlet and stipulates that the construction must be environmentally acceptable and in compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.

Mr. Chairman, I recognize that an outlet is not the sole solution to the flooding disaster at Devils Lake, North Dakota. Unfortunately, there is not one solution to this flood. But an outlet is a necessary part of the comprehensive approach to battle this flooding. We face an emergency situation at Devils Lake, North Dakota. I urge this committee to join the North Dakota Congressional delegation and state and local leaders in making every effort to avert a larger disaster.

Mr. Chairman, thank you again for conducting this important hearing. In addition to the Congressional delegation, we have a number of witnesses from North Dakota that are present. We would be happy to answer any questions that you or members of the committee may have regarding the need for an emergency outlet at Devils Lake.