Lake swamps N. Dakota with problems

The rising waters of Devils Lake are turning central North Dakota into a rough version of the Netherlands. Highways once bordered by pastureland now slice through acres of lake water like lonely causeways. Makeshift dikes protect buildings. Farmers now fish where they once raised crops.

The lake has tripled in size since 1993, and weather forecasters say it could rise another two feet this summer. It's threatening highways and rail service and even shutting down rural towns.

No one, however, is quite sure what to do about it. The obvious solution - building an outlet to lower the water - is mired in environmental and international politics. So government officials have spent eight years and more than $300 million raising bridges, building dikes, and buying out threatened homeowners. But such stop-gap measures will mean little if unusually high rainfall continues.

"We're in a wet cycle, and we don't know if we are near the peak or at the bottom," says Richard Anderson, executive director of the North Central Planning Council in Devils Lake.

Two weeks ago, the federal government announced a new $1.6 million program that would pay threatened homeowners 85 percent of the value of their house and one garage. The move helps people avert complete losses. But it's depopulating a countryside already struggling with rural decline.

Consider Churchs Ferry. When Paul Christenson was elected mayor last June, 86 people turned out to vote. Today, Mr. Christenson, his family, and one other household are all that's left. Everyone else has moved out, having taken advantage of a previous buyout program.

Still, the town sports a post office. Christenson remains mayor, and the other couple in town agreed to be city council members. A few still-functioning businesses draw patrons from elsewhere.

But most of the houses here sit empty, with "no trespassing" notices peeking out of windows. At one of the two homes still occupied, someone has turned a brightly painted boat into a lawn ornament, dubbing it the "HMS Justin Case."

"It's way different," says Christenson, who misses looking out his window and seeing a neighbor. The pride of keeping up one's yard is gone, he adds. "This winter at Christmastime, I just had to force myself to decorate my home."

The flooding has hurt businesses, too. Just down the road, the BTR Farmers Co-op is looking for a new site.

"The level of this floor right here is 1,453 feet above sea level," says Gregory J. Nelson, the co-op's general manager, pointing to the floor of his office. "Devils Lake was 1,446.7 last Friday.... We could be out of here next year."

Abandoning its current $6 million facility would prove costly. Even under the best-case scenario, with flood insurance covering as much as the co-op thinks it should, the shareowners would lose roughly half of their equity.

Meanwhile, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad has started round-the-clock inspections of a nearby track bed threatened by the water. Although it's not the railroad's main line through North Dakota, Amtrak uses the track to run the Empire Builder, one of its premier long-distance trains, to connect Chicago with the Pacific Northwest. If Burlington Northern does have to close the track, "we'd probably find another route," says Amtrak spokesman Kevin Johnson.

Farmers have borne the brunt of the flooding. More than 75,000 acres of land, much of it farmland, now lies under water. While federal programs cover losses to buildings due to flooding, they don't compensate for flooded land.

"Pretty soon there won't be anything left," says Dan Webster, who farms in Churchs Ferry. High water has pushed him off nearly a third of the 5,000 acres he farms (although he's been able to rent other land). Some of the buildings on his family homestead have been flooded, and the rest surrounded.

The worst part, Mr. Webster says, is the waiting. "It would be my hope that if ... the lake continues to rise, they do something for the people who get wiped out by it, so we can get on with our lives."

Federal, state, and local officials have pushed for years to build a channel from the lake south to the Sheyenne River. The main problem: Downstream communities worry the salty lake water would exacerbate flooding problems and ruin the river's water quality.

To complicate matters, the Sheyenne empties into the Red River, which flows north into Canada. And Canadians worry that organisms found in Devils Lake would invade Manitoba waters and damage its fishing and tourism industries.

If the high rainfall continues, the lake will flow into Canada on its own. Already, nearby Stump Lake has risen 18 inches since spring, thanks to the runoff from Devils Lake.

At numerous times during the past 10,000 years, the US Geologic Survey has concluded the lake has overflowed naturally into the Sheyenne. If that happens again, Devils Lake would double its present size and flood an area in North Dakota 70 miles wide.

"Outlet - that's the only solution," says Lowell Haagenson, fishing off one of the area bridges that has been raised but still stands only about two feet above water. "They're going to get the water anyway."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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