Colburn Hvidston Iii  /  AP
This former football field has become a swampy marsh as North Dakota's Devils Lake continues to grow.
updated 5/13/2005 1:09:38 PM ET 2005-05-13T17:09:38

The goal posts of the former high school football field here stand as buoys in a marshy swamp, marking the edge of a burgeoning lake that was nine miles from this town just a decade ago.

Devils Lake, which for years sat dormant on the outskirts of the city with the same name, has nearly tripled in size after more than a decade of wet weather in the enclosed basin. It has gobbled up farmland and forced people to move their homes.

Now a 14-mile, $28 million outlet to divert some of the water is nearing completion — but officials in Canada are calling for a delay until an independent board can determine if it would pollute water north of the border, including Lake Winnipeg.

North Dakota leaders say that it’s too late for such a review and that water quality will be protected.

“The bottom line is that we will not allow Canada to block progress on protecting life and property in the Devils Lake Basin,” said Sen. Kent Conrad.

River runs into Canada
The outlet, scheduled for completion in June, would move water from the lake to the Sheyenne River. The Sheyenne empties into the Red River, which runs north along the North Dakota-Minnesota border and into Canada.

Colburn Hvidston III  /  AP
Ramsey County Commissioner Joe Belford stands behind a connector to be used for the 14-mile canal diverting lake water into a river.
The political maneuvering has intensified in the last month. Conrad and Byron Dorgan, North Dakota’s other senator in Washington, have criticized Canadian officials for trying to stall the outlet. Manitoba Premier Gary Doer has accused the senators, both Democrats, of playing political hardball by using their seniority to threaten other projects.

“It’s good politics in Manitoba, particularly in Winnipeg, to be against North Dakota water projects,” Gov. John Hoeven said. “As we debunk each one of their issues, they come up with a new one.”

Officials on both sides of the issue have taken their case to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Officials from Manitoba and Minnesota want the outlet reviewed by the International Joint Commission, a U.S.-Canadian board that was created to settle cross-boundary water disputes. Hoeven has said North Dakota offered to refer a previous outlet study to the IJC, but Canada refused in May 2002.

$500 million spent
The government has spent an estimated $500 million on infrastructure repairs and improvements to deal with the Devils Lake problem, including raising roads and the dike that protects the city of Devils Lake.

The outlet is designed to haul 45,000 gallons of water per minute, which is expected to shave up to 4 inches per year off the lake. Opponents, including some North Dakota residents, said it’s a waste of money because it won’t drain enough water from the lake. Outlet supporters say the incremental benefits are important, because they will help control the level of the lake. They also say the outlet is just part of the overall flood-fighting effort, which also includes more upper basin water storage and the use of excess water for irrigation.

“When you consider expenditures of $500 million, the price of the outlet is a drop in the bucket,” State Water Commission engineer Dale Frink said. “But over time, it will make a difference.”

U.S. group backs Canada
A group opposed to the outlet, People to Save the Sheyenne, has joined with Manitoba in a lawsuit to stop the project. That case has been heard by the North Dakota Supreme Court, but one member of the Sheyenne group believes their hopes are fading.

“Honestly it’s getting to the point that the only thing we do have is the IJC,” said Milt Sauer, who lives on the Sheyenne near Valley City. “I’ve been called a radical and an idiot, but I don’t think we know enough about the quality of the water. I’m not an environmentalist, I’m a realist.”

Devils Lake is now is roughly 1,448 feet above sea level. Joe Belford, a county commissioner and member of the lake’s emergency management committee, said the last time it was that high was 1827, when a steamboat dock was located in what is now the city limits.

That area of the city would be flooded today if not for a levee that was built in the early 1980s, originally to a level of 1,440 feet. It was recently raised to 1,460 feet.

“If it wasn’t for the dike,” Belford said, “the Wal-Mart store would have 13 feet of water in it.”

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