The Slow Bleed of Devils LakeBy Steven Johnson | ECT Staff Writer Published: February 4th, 2013
Editor’s note: While the nation’s attention has been focused in recent years on natural disasters such as Sandy, Isaac and Katrina, a different kind of disaster has been playing out in rural North Dakota. In the first of three parts, ECT.coop looks at how nonstop flooding from a single lake has destroyed hundreds of farms and lives.
DEVILS LAKE, N.D.—The most painful part of Dan Webster’s standoff with the flooding was when he had to burn down his father’s house.
It was a white farmhouse on about 9,000 acres near Churchs Ferry in northeastern North Dakota, where his grandfather started farming in the 1930s, before electricity reached the area. Webster always believed that his wife and four daughters would move in and become the third generation of his family to live there.
Then the water came.
It started in the mid-1990s from a distant lake and metastasized like a cancer, washing over cropland, splashing against fuel tanks and lapping at the evergreens, poplars and lilac trees that Webster and his father Wilton planted around the house. After years of coping, they surrendered, accepted an insurance buyout and burned the house to the ground, because government rules said you couldn’t leave it behind unoccupied.
“He worked all his life for that farmstead,” Webster, a former electric cooperative director, says of his father. “I can still see us standing there. All the memories. Nobody said much. Up to the end, he still had hope that something was going to change.”
A self-described optimist, Webster reflects on the tribulation from the dining room of his new house, about six miles from the old one. His father, nicknamed “McGyver” because he could fix anything, eventually moved to the city of Devils Lake, where he died in 2010. Webster, meanwhile, still has 5,000 acres under water to the merciless creep of Devils Lake, which has been turning parcels dedicated to wheat, soybeans and barley into navigable waters for two decades.
“You never dreamed it could get this bad,” he says. “As it went on, you never dreamed that they wouldn’t solve it. That’s the frustrating thing.”
DISASTER OUT OF SIGHT
On the vast, flat expense of the North Dakota plains, there is no immediacy to the story of Devils Lake. Unlike a hurricane or an ice storm, it moves in slow motion, inch by inch, in sparsely populated communities, and lacks the riveting drama that springs network news anchors from behind their desks to report from the site of a calamity.
But the question is the same: How do you put a price on the loss of your house, your farm, your land, your livelihood, your retirement, now that it has drowned in waters 20 feet deep?
Since 1993, when Devils Lake started its slow bleed across North Dakota’s Lake Region, the damage has been unimaginable:
• An estimated $375 million in economic losses to the region, just in the last two years.
• The peak inundation of nearly 170,000 acres of farmland, an area larger than the size of Chicago.
• More than 650 houses and buildings relocated or burned to the ground.
• Twenty-three highway deaths attributable to crumbling, washed-out roads.
• More than $1.5 billion in federal, state and local spending, including more than $80 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has bought out most of two communities and is moving another out of harm’s way.
• Some $500 million spent to elevate roads and buttress them with broken stones and rubble, so the local highway network mostly resembles a series of rocky trestles.
• For one electric cooperative, the loss of more than 150 miles of overhead lines and 25 miles of underground lines.
“It’s not a big, sexy flood,” says Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board since 2008. “We’re not rescuing people off the top of their roofs with Coast Guard helicopters; we don’t have homes floating down the river. But it has been a slow-growing progression that eats away at people’s lives and livelihoods.”
THE ICE AGE TO TODAY
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson cups his open hands together and tries to explain the phenomenon, as a university professor explained it to him.
“As the lake was rising, at first it was a bowl. Once that bowl filled up, it became a plate,” Johnson says. “It took a long time to get that bowl filled. But once it filled up and became a plate, it took very little water to spread it out, and it spread fast.”
Devils Lake is an anomaly, the remnant of a glacial age that ended 10,000 years ago. It is a closed basin, with no outlet like a river or a stream. While rain and melted snow contribute to its rising levels, geologists believe Devils Lake is naturally unstable, and prone to extreme, prolonged wet and dry patterns.
Since its formation, it has dried up about a half-dozen times. But it also has topped out at 1,458 feet above sea level, the point at which it gushes southeast of the city into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red River, causing devastation as far away as Canada.
The lake has been slithering toward that mark for almost 20 years. From June 1993 to June 2011, it swelled more than 31 feet, annexing a chain of other lakes before topping out at 1,454.30 feet. Its surface area ballooned from 44,230 acres to 211,300 acres, and it dumped water faster than the government could bale it out.
“There was no precedent for it,” Johnson says. “At the beginning of it, even six miles inland, the transportation people would raise a bridge two feet. ‘Ah, we’re out of the water.’ The next year, they’d be under again. They spent millions and millions and millions of dollars redoing stuff they had done before.”
In response, the city has undergone a New Orleans-style fortification. For the fourth time since 1996, the Army Corps of Engineers has built up a 30-year-old levee, extending it to 12 miles long and about 1,466 feet high at a cost of $155 million.
Two pumping stations, one on either end of the lake, can push 600 cubic feet per second toward the Tolna Coulee, a manmade spillway that controls water flow into the Sheyenne. The stations’ electric bill approaches $500,000 a month.
Those bulwarks and a recent spate of mild weather have brought some relief to the city’s 7,000-plus residents, Johnson says. A packaging company could add 400 jobs to the tax base, and prospects are looking up.
“For years, all we heard`was flood, flood, flood, and you couldn’t go to a meeting without hearing those things. This year, that wasn’t the case. They talk about economic development,” he says. “But you know what? We’re one, maybe two major storms from being back where we were.”
ABANDONING THE FARM
The city is protected, but the counties surrounding it are not, and that breaks JoAnn Rodenbiker’s heart. She grew up beyond the levee in the small community of Lakewood, southwest of the city. Since 1994, Rodenbiker has been at Northern Plains Electric Co-op, where she directs business development from the Cando office. For years, she balked at visiting her old home, and with good reason.
“I hadn’t gone out there because I couldn’t stand the thought of it,” she recalls. “When I went out, all of the farmland that my dad farmed is under water or in cattails. The houses out there, they’re mostly gone. I could name everyone who lived in every one of those places. They’re all gone. It’s all under water. Where did they go? What happened to them?”
Mostly, they left. Last May, FEMA wrote a $3.8 million check to Minnewaukan, a tiny city on the lake’s west bay, to buy out and demolish 57 residences and buildings. Minnewaukan is down to 227 residents from more than 400 at the start of the flooding. That’s just one example. Churchs Ferry is all but extinct; its population has fallen from 118 to 12.
Bill Hodous understands why so many farmers have thrown in the towel. He did. With his family, Hodous harvested wheat, barley and sunflowers for nearly a quarter-century on a farm in Ramsey County, before rains filled up potholes required for hay production and shut down the business.
Now he is the North Dakota State University extension agent for Ramsey County. He and other researchers have been studying regional crop losses, which they put at more than $100 million for the last two years, during an otherwise prosperous period for farmers.
“We have to take what’s given to us. At this point, this is what we have,” Hodous says. “As the farmers or anybody in our community struggles, we struggle with them, trying to find information to help them out and get through things. So we’re still right in the middle of it.”
There has been a smattering of resolute holdouts trying to hold back an inevitable tide. One stood out to Gary Allen, manager of engineering at Northern Plains Electric Co-op, who is tasked with contacting landowners and letting them know when they’re in danger of losing power for good.
The farmer was in his 80s, and Allen visited him personally to ask about his intentions, because the co-op lines and poles to the farm were in trouble.
“He had spent most of his time thinking about this, and he had come to the conclusion that the state and the government had abandoned him and FEMA had abandoned him,” Allen says. “His wife was trying to keep him calm and the longer he talked, the more worked up he got. It came down to ‘FEMA needs to leave one road open so they can get here with a hearse to take me away!’ ”
It didn’t happen.
“He ended up having to move out. His entire farm is under water now.”
ROCK, HAY AND HOPE
Of necessity, Dan Webster became his own Army Corps of Engineers.
Some of the family farm was still accessible through a washed-out road that Ramsey County declined to repair. Webster fashioned a makeshift dike of rocks and hay bales, and used a tractor and pump to send water north of the road. On one side, then, an ad hoc lake; on the other, reasonably dry farmland. In 2010 alone, his undertaking required about 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel.
For a while, things were hopeful. But in 2011, the water burst through and Webster Dam gave way.
“That was really a killer, when we lost that many acres. We’d been holding on to that road for about eight years. It was about 3,500 acres we lost that year,” he says.
In effect, Webster has started from scratch. He moved 14 buildings, including grain bins, to a tract he bought near Penn, southeast of Churchs Ferry. In addition to his dad’s house, he burned four or five other structures. An aging Quonset-style building and a 30-year-old machine shed didn’t qualify for demolition, so he had to spend $20,000 to move them, instead of investing the money in new ones.
“Financially, it wasn’t good,” says Webster, who was a director for 10 years at Grand Forks-based Nodak Electric Cooperative. “But when you’re living it, there aren’t a lot of options. I mean, it was a tremendous undertaking.”
The lake is down about three feet from last year, but no one knows whether that’s a short-term blip. The U.S. Geological Survey says it might stay in the range of 1,454 feet through 2030. There’s a 1-in-10 probability that it could top 1,458 feet, splash past the coulee, and endanger communities along the Sheyenne and Red rivers.
Yet for all the flooded farmsteads, all the ruined lives, all the despair and disruption, Mother Nature can’t submerge the emotional attachment that farmers feel for their land.
Webster, who now farms with his son-in-law, is in it for the long haul. He hopes to reclaim 500 to 1,000 acres of the flooded farm, if the waters cooperate in 2013. Barley and soybeans can tolerate salty lake residue, but he cautions that the soil will have to be analyzed and cleaned up before he decides whether to plant.
“It’s been hard on families,” he says. “If you’re a farmer, it’s a generational thing, because you don’t get in and out of farming. To get in, you almost have to have help from the family. It takes too much money. Ideally, I’d like to be able to pass on what my grandfather and my father passed on to me.”
Next week: Part two on a co-op member who stood up to the flooding.
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