Group: Study impact on Sheyenne

VALLEY CITY, N.D. -- Hundreds of residents here are begging state officials to quit using the Devils Lake outlet until more is known about its environmental impacts on the Sheyenne River.

Dave Olson / The Forum Sharon Buhr, left, and Madeline Luke speak at a news conference Thursday in Valley City, N.D., where organizers of a petition drive explained why they want to see the Devils Lake outlet shut down and an independent study conducted to explore reasons for the lake's rising water level as well as potential impacts of continued use of the outlet.

VALLEY CITY, N.D. -- Hundreds of residents here are begging state officials to quit using the Devils Lake outlet until more is known about its environmental impacts on the Sheyenne River.

They want an independent study to answer that question, as well as the question of why Devils Lake continues to rise, said Sharon Buhr, an organizer of a petition drive seeking a moratorium on the outlet.

Buhr, who is also the chairwoman of the public health agency serving Valley City and Barnes County, said answers are critical in light of a step the state took in June to ease controls on sulfate levels in certain stretches of the Sheyenne River. This allowed for greater releases through the outlet.

The North Dakota Department of Health is reviewing whether to make the new standards permanent, a decision that could come early next year, said David Glatt, chief of the department's environmental health section.

Buhr said at a news conference Thursday in downtown Valley City that residents are concerned about harm the proposed rule change might do, not only to Valley City, "but also to the entire third of North Dakota."


She said that over a six-day period, 700 people signed a petition "begging the state to complete an environmental impact study."

Madeline Luke, a physician and another organizer of the petition drive, said the 2009 flood showed how dangerous fluctuations in the Sheyenne River can be.

"We came quite close to losing the city. Any increase in water would have put us over our primary dikes," Luke said, adding the flood threat exists beyond spring.

"The weather in North Dakota is unpredictable," said Luke, who lives a block from the river. "If you have a full river, increase flow and then a storm, you get into situations where you don't have much warning."

Gary Pearson, a long-time critic of the outlet, said the State Water Commission claimed the outlet would lower Devils Lake by 17 inches after 10 years of operation.

He said from 2005 to 2008, the outlet removed a total of one-tenth of an inch of water from the lake and the lake is 10 inches higher than it was before the outlet began operation.

Pearson said none of the efforts to control Devils Lake address why it is rising and he said the 358,000 acres of wetlands drained in the region over the past 70 years may be worth noting.

"There is an urgent need for a comprehensive, scientific review of the flooding problems at Devils Lake by an independent body that is free of the political pressures that dominate water issues in North Dakota," Pearson said.


Dale Frink, engineer for the State Water Commission, said wetland drainage hasn't helped the situation, but he said Devils Lake reached similar levels in the 1800s, before widespread drainage began.

He said snowmelt and precipitation are believed to be the major reasons for the rise in Devils Lake.

The outlet was shut down for the winter at the end of October. Frink said it won't reopen until an expansion project is completed that will allow for increased outflows if conditions and rules permit it.

Glatt said he doesn't see the state imposing a moratorium on the outlet, given it is shut down and likely won't reopen before the state decides whether to permanently raise the sulfate limit on the upper Sheyenne River from 450 milligrams per liter to 750 milligrams per liter.

"I will say the change from 450 to 750 is a level that is protective of aquatic life. EPA (the federal Environmental Protection Agency) has approved that in other states," Glatt said.

Dave Olson is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

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