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WDAY: The News Leader

Published April 24, 2010, 12:07 PM

ND town fights to keep down rising water from lake

MINNEWAUKAN, N.D. (AP) — Devils Lake is an uninvited guest in Travis and Corinne Risovi's home. Water began seeping through cracks in their basement during the Good Friday storm, which brought rain, snow and fresh urgency to their plight.

By: PATRICK SPRINGER, Associated Press

MINNEWAUKAN, N.D. (AP) — Devils Lake is an uninvited guest in Travis and Corinne Risovi's home. Water began seeping through cracks in their basement during the Good Friday storm, which brought rain, snow and fresh urgency to their plight. The relentless rise of Devils Lake, which has surged 28 feet in 18 years, now has reached a level slightly above the floor of the couple's basement.

Their three-bedroom rambler is on a slight rise roughly 35 yards from the shore, but the climbing water table poses the more immediate threat to the Risovis' recently refurbished home.

Across the street, on the other side of a recently built sandbag barrier, lake water flows among cattails and dead trees where neighbors' homes once stood.

"You just deal with it as it comes," said Travis Risovi, recalling the day last summer when wind pushed the water to the bottom of his driveway. "Otherwise, it'll drive you nuts. It's a big lake, and one person's not going to stop it."

Nothing seems capable of stopping Devils Lake, which has more than tripled in size, dislocating more than 400 homes and requiring more than $1 billion in repairs and infrastructure upgrades.

Another $200 million will be spent this year to raise area roads and levees protecting the city of Devils Lake.

Crews are working to more than double the pumping capacity of the lake's artificial outlet, which releases water to the Sheyenne River when conditions allow. If the lake goes up another 8 feet, it will spill from its natural outlet into the river, something geologists believe has happened three times, most recently about 2,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, the spring thaw has brought a new record level to the lake and a new set of headaches to this farming town of 300, surrounded on three sides by Devils Lake with a water-filled coulee pouring in from the remaining side.

"It's kind of gobbling us up," said Rita Staloch, a member of the Minnewaukan City Council who runs the local insurance agency with her husband.

Townspeople worry that saturated ground beneath the city water tower could cause it to come crashing down. Soil tests will determine whether it is safe.

Waves now lap 125 feet from the town's kindergarten through grade 12 school, and geese float over the submerged football field. The school's gymnasium floor is just 3 feet above the level of the lake.

Concrete barriers will guard the school's parking lot from wave damage, and rip-rap rocks will be added to protect against erosion.

"That's just a Band-Aid, and we're hemorrhaging," Staloch said.

At a recent town meeting, residents agreed they want to stay put and continue their battle with Devils Lake. But if the lake keeps rising, their challenges are daunting.

A permanent levee would be the best line of defense for the eastern side of town, including the school and water tower, but the cost could be out of reach. Seven years ago, the cost of a permanent levee was estimated to be $10 million to $12 million.

Today, the cost is likely closer to $15 million or $17 million, Staloch said, with the local share a quarter of the total — a tough bill to pay for a town with a tiny tax base that literally is shrinking with each lost home.

Residents would also pay $100,000 a year in pumping costs to remove water from the dry side of the dike, or about $700 for every household.

Last week, Devils Lake rose several inches as melted snow and early spring rains trickled in. Hydrologists predict the lake has a 30 percent chance of gaining a foot this summer.

That could mean several more houses could be forced to move, Staloch said, joining the nine that already were destroyed or relocated, most of them out of town.

Nine years ago, when the lake was 4 feet lower than its current level of 1,451.3 feet above sea level, the Stalochs moved their home to higher ground in town.

Although their relocated home is safe from the lake, the couple worry they could lose access if low-lying streets go under water in time.

Minnewaukan is the county seat, with a courthouse that is on the national historic registry, and the school serves 238 students, many from surrounding communities.

So, abandoning the town would not be simple or cheap, Staloch and others said.

The school's replacement cost probably approaches $15 million, or roughly the cost of a permanent levee, said Superintendent Myron Jury. Enrollment has been growing at the school.

The Risovis, who live on lower ground two blocks east of the Stalochs, want to stay in Minnewaukan. Both of them work at the school, and they have three young children. They have flood insurance and are eligible for a buyout but face difficult decisions.

"Where do you move your house to?" Travis Risovi asked. "Does it make sense to move it someplace else in Minnewaukan? Right now we're just kind of holding out."

Minnewaukan's first losing battle against Devils Lake came 14 years ago when the city's sewage lagoon was swamped, just weeks after a new one was built as the water rose.

Several million dollars have been spent to improve lift stations and reline water and sewage systems and construct the new lagoon.

The cost of building a new water tower is estimated at $500,000. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., secured $300,000 that could help pay the bill, leaving $200,000 left to pay. Those are big bills for a town with a property tax base of $6.2 million.

Engineers have advised city officials that water and sewer infrastructure should remain safe until Devils Lake rises another 4 feet.

If that happens, deprived of water and sewer services, the city quickly would become uninhabitable unless major public works projects could be put in place, Staloch said.

Yet officials say it is becoming increasingly difficult simply to maintain city services as the tax base and number of water and sewer ratepayers gradually erodes.

The rising lake has turned Minnewaukan into a resort town for visiting anglers and hunters, bringing cabins, guide services and bait shops.

Trish McQuoid, who serves as Minnewaukan's mayor, and her husband moved from Minnesota several years ago to open a resort. They also own the local grocery store.

"I hope the community's days aren't numbered," she said. "I'd like to stay."

Although the fishing resort is doing well, the town's challenges keep growing. "It's overwhelming," McQuoid said.

The level of Devils Lake has fluctuated during a gradual rise that began in 1940, when it was 51 feet lower than its current level. The increase accelerated when the wet cycle began in 1993, surging 6 feet in 1997.

But someday the wet cycle will end, probably as abruptly as it began.

"The thing is," Staloch said, "we don't want to stop fighting one year before the lake goes down."

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