Testimony of North Dakota Governor Ed Schafer
Presented by David A. Sprynczynatyk, State Engineer
to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee
Relative to the Devils Lake Emergency Outlet
October 23, 1997

Chairman Chafee and members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.

My name is David Sprynczynatyk. I am the State Engineer and Secretary to the North Dakota State Water Commission. The testimony I am giving today is on behalf of Governor Ed Schafer. Governor Schafer asked me to extend his apologies to the committee for not being able to attend in person.

Since 1993, Devils Lake has risen more than 20 feet from elevation 1422.6 msl to 1442.9 msl. Today it is the most serious and most pressing flood problem facing North Dakota. Since 1993, the federal, state, tribal and local governments, as well as the people of that area, have incurred more than $200 million in damages and flood-fighting expenses. As the lake continues to rise, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' forecasts that cumulative damages will grow to $370 million by the time the lake reaches 1450 msl, less than eight feet above its current level. This year alone the lake rose five feet over last year's level.

Most often, rivers will rise, flood adjacent areas, and then recede. This is not the case with Devils Lake, which continues to rise relentlessly, engulfing land, homes, roads and everything else within its constantly growing borders. This is a progressive disaster that requires emergency action to gain control.

The lake's natural outlet occurs when water rises another 15 feet and reaches elevation 1457.5 msl. It then overflows into the nearby Sheyenne River, which drains into the Red River and ultimately into Lake Winnipeg. Geologists have concluded that this natural spillage has occurred several times during the past 10,000 years. No one can predict what will happen with the lake next year. As Governor, I have watched the lake rise well beyond the best scientific predictions for five years in a row. Just a few weeks ago, Mother Nature dumped another three to five inches of rain over the entire Devils Lake Basin. Every naturally occurring event such as this compounds our problems, and reminds us how little control we have over the situation.

North Dakota's approach to managing the problem has been a comprehensive, three-part effort including upper basin storage and management, protecting infrastructure, and removing water from the lake.

First, state and federal governments have made significant efforts to hold water back within the upper areas of the basin. Upper basin water management, as we call it, has been ongoing for several years, but it alone is not the answer. Some people point the finger of blame to agriculture, and suggest that closing wetland drains is the solution. Again, this is a grossly simplistic approach. Scientific evidence shows that the lake's level has ebbed and flowed for thousands of years, and overflowed naturally into the Sheyenne River long before man had any influence in the watershed. We firmly believe there is a limit to what we can accomplish through upper basin water management. Nevertheless, we continue to spend millions of dollars on upper basin management to restore holding areas and create new ones.

Secondly, we are protecting infrastructure around the lake. The greatest expenses have occurred as a result of relocating more than 100 homes, raising miles of roads, replacing several bridges, and building levees and protecting utilities. This year alone we had 17 highway elevation raising projects in the area for a total cost of nearly $30 million. More dirt and roadwork took place in the Devils Lake region this year than occurred in our state even during construction of the Interstate Highway System. Resources to continue these infrastructure efforts are limited. Yet we must continue pursuing these projects, not knowing if our efforts will ultimately be overtaken again by a lake that is rising uncontrolled.

Our third effort is to remove water from the lake. This is where an outlet is necessary because evaporation is the only current method of reducing the lake level. Even with a prolonged drought, it would take more than 10 years of normal evaporation for the lake to return to the pre-flood level of 1993.

A managed outlet is technically feasible and several have been completed successfully elsewhere in the country. Lake Pulaski in neighboring Minnesota is a good example, a managed lake outlet built in 1986. Environmentally, the outlet can be constructed and operated to meet downstream state and federal water quality standards. Operating the outlet only during non-flood periods will eliminate additional downstream flooding in peak flood times. The entire basin would be managed like a reservoir with water being stored when needed for downstream flood control, and released during non-flood periods.

The benefit of the outlet has been questioned since it is limited in its capacity. At the current lake level, any future rise will cost approximately $30 million per foot, much more than what was projected by studies completed by the Corps several years ago when the lake was 25 feet lower. A rise in 1998 similar to what we experienced this year could cause up to $150 million in additional damages. To the people who have lost nearly 60,000 acres of land, their homes and their livelihood to the lake since 1993, I can assure you the outlet is very justified.

Regarding the non-federal cost share for the project, the 1997 North Dakota Legislature provided sufficient funding for the cost share to the State Water Commission. The state stands ready to provide funds as necessary.

Finally, there seems to be some confusion regarding the relationship of Devils Lake to the Missouri River Basin. Devils Lake physically is not a part of the Missouri River Basin, it is part of the Hudson Bay (Red River) drainage. An outlet from Devils Lake to its natural basin, the Red River, will in no way affect the Missouri River nor the Mississippi River.

Thank you for your time today. And thank you for your careful consideration of this outlet project that will provide relief from this terrible, unfolding disaster and emergency that plagues the Devils Lake region and the State of North Dakota.


October, 1997


Devils Lake is normally considered a closed sub-basin of the Red River of the North Basin. However, evidence suggests that Devils Lake has, on several occasions during the past 10,000 years, reached its spill elevation of about 1457.5 above mean sea level (msl) and overflowed to the Sheyenne and Red Rivers. Geologists have concluded that Devils Lake water levels naturally vary widely due to climatic swings. Beginning 130 years ago with the first recorded level of 1438.4 msl, the lake level fell until reaching its recorded low of 1401.9 msl in 1940. From that point the lake has followed a rising trend, reaching the modern high of 1442.97 msl in July 1997. The lake is currently at elevation 1442.6 msl, over five feet higher than it was a year ago.

Flood Problems and Damages

Flooding in 1993 caused Devils Lake to rise five feet in six months. The lake has steadily risen each year since, almost 20 feet total. The volume of water in Devils Lake has more than tripled since July of 1993. Over 51,000 acres of adjacent land, much of it deeded farm or ranchland, has been flooded since 1993. The lake now covers about 98,100 acres. More than 172 buildings have been affected. In 1997, about 400 damage claims have been filed totaling $20 million in Ramsey and Benson Counties. In addition, 83 homes on the Spirit Lake Nation Reservation have been, or will be moved. Insurance claims paid by the National Flood Insurance in 1996 totaled $7.1 million for damage to private homes and businesses.

Maintaining state and county roads at Devils Lake has cost tens of millions of dollars since 1993. There were 17 highway elevation raising projects in progress around Devils Lake in 1997 at a total cost of $27.2 million.

Highways 20 and 57 south of the City of Devils Lake are key routes in the region for school bus traffic, shopping, commuting for work, and for emergency transportation to the south side of Devils Lake including the Spirit Lake Reservation. Both highways were flooded at the narrows south of Devils Lake last spring. Plans to build a $15 million, 6,400-foot long bridge on Highway 57 are in progress. Contractors worked all summer to raise Highway 20 to elevation 1448.5 msl. Work on raising Highways 281 and 19 north of Minnewaukan, as well as other roads and bridges at 17 project sites around the lake is nearing completion. Top of roadway elevation on most highways adjacent to Devils Lake is now at 1448.5 msl, less than six feet above the current lake level.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is raising the City of Devils Lake levee system. Stages I and II were completed in 1997 at a cost of $7 million. They protect the city to elevation 1445 msl. Another $43 million has been committed to raise the dike for community protection to 1450 msl.

The North Dakota State Park System has four parks adjacent to the lake. The Narrows State Park was flooded and abandoned in 1995. The road to Grahams Island State Park was flooded this spring and the park was closed all year. A project to raise the road should be completed in November. Many camp sites, the marina, and other facilities at Grahams Island State Parks remain flooded. Shelvers Grove and Black Tiger Bay Parks have some flooded facilities but they remain open. Engineers estimate it will cost $950,000 to relocate pipes and pump stations required to keep the Ramsey County rural sewer system operable. This work must be accomplished this fall. As lakeshore property owners move away to escape the rising water, income to service the system's existing $907,000 debt decreases. Over 125 accounts have been lost due to the flooding.

Basin Water Management Efforts A multi-faceted approach, including basin water management, infrastructure protection as mentioned above, and an outlet to the Sheyenne River, is critical for addressing Devils Lake flooding problems.

About 60,000 acres of wetlands are drained throughout the basin while about 252,000 acres of wetlands and lakes are still intact and storing water. In 1995, the State Water Commission initiated the Available Storage Acreage Program (ASAP) with a target of 75,000 acre-feet of storage in the upper basin. The program solicits temporary, voluntary, and compensated water storage sites. In 1997, 150 sites provided 22,000 acre-feet of storage for 1997 runoff. The State Water Commission recently approved an additional $1.15 million for 1998 storage. ASAP will continue to seek storage as funding permits.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service has identified 36 projects to provide 12,774 acre-feet of long-term storage potential on public lands. In 1996, eight projects were completed and now provide 1,762 acre-feet of storage. Cost thus far is $471,000 for permanent facilities. In addition, the recent Conservation Reserve Program emphasized wetland restoration in its signup criteria. As a result 164,000 acres of wetlands will be re-established in the counties that are part of the Devils Lake Basin. Over 7,800 acres of federal wetland reserve will be established. The state's ASAP program and the North Dakota Wetland Trust are helping finance some of the wetland restorations.

Sub-basin committees of local landowners have been established by the Devils Lake Joint Water Board to help achieve water management objectives through direct grassroots involvement. A full- time manager was hired by the Board in early October to help implement their basin management plan.

The Outlet Part of the Solution Several potential alignments for a Devils Lake outlet have been considered. In all cases, potential water quality impacts and flood risk in receiving waters are major concerns. A "west-end outlet" is critical to attain cost and environmental viability. The preferred alignment is the Peterson Coulee route. Several designs are being considered. Current designs clearly preclude the emergency outlet from being used as an inlet.

Under a fast-track approach, outlet construction will take a minimum of 29 months, including environmental reviews, authorization, and funding. When finished, the project may pump a maximum of 300 cubic feet per second (cfs) to the Sheyenne River. This could remove about 120,000 acre-feet of water annually or about 1.2 feet at today's level.

Devils Lake water will be mixed with the normal flow of the Sheyenne and Red Rivers. At no time during a 10-year simulation of a 200 cfs emergency outlet project were the sulfate standards or international border objectives exceeded. However, outlet operation will also raise total dissolved solids (TDS) levels. Managing TDS to satisfy downstream concerns will be factored into the final project design.