Devils Lake: Giveth and taketh

Farm Forum

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — While the Red River flooding grabs the biggest headlines for its critical flooding emergency, the chronic story is Devils Lake.

“It’s been going on for 20 years; you get tired of it,” says Dan Webster, chairman of the Ramsey County Water Resource Board. He farms in a flooded area about 10 miles west of Devils Lake, near the village of Penn. Webster and a son-in-law, Evan Schoenfish, raise corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, dry beans and canola.

When the lake receded 3 feet in 2012, it gave farmers in the area hope. Like others, Webster and Schoenfish started clearing and cleaning land.

“We worked pretty hard last year, mowing and burning cattails, removing debris, and now we might lose it all again,” Webster says. The effort cost thousands of dollars in fuel, not to mention the time and machine hours.

He thinks it’ll all be for naught.

“The water’ll have it,” Webster predicts, noting he’s on the western edge of the basin so the water comes fast when it starts coming. After a thaw, he figures it’ll take a week or 10 days to put it all under. “Once the coulees start running in … we’ve seen it come up 4 to 5 inches in a day.”

Webster, also chairman of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, says he has about 5,000 acres under the lake. He’s had to move his farm headquarters four times in the past 10 years. As land was lost to the lake, he’s rented or bought land to keep his farmed acres a viable size. He was hoping to reclaim up to 1,000 acres in 2013, but with current forecasts of a 2-foot lake rise, he expects much of what’s been cleaned to go under again this year.

Webster gives a windshield tour of the land — much of it still covered in knee-deep snow on April 16. In the distance, he points to piles of tree limbs — some 2 feet in diameter — from 50-foot tall trees from shelterbelts that had been planted in the 1930s, dead from being inundated, and washed into his land, pounded into the shorelines that once were county roads. In one case, a neighbor’s abandoned garage sits under snow. It was sheered off by lake ice and then washed more than a mile from its foundation.

The 2013 prospects of retaining what he cleaned up in 2012 don’t look good.

By the numbers

Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board, says the lake area is about 177,000 acres today, compared with about 43,000 acres in 1993, so about 135,000 acres have been inundated. Projections for what happens on the lake are based on March 18 conditions and won’t be updated until April 26. At that time, there was a 90 percent chance of going 2 feet higher and a 30 percent chance of matching the record high. The modern day record high was 1.454.4 feet on May 31, 2011.

Bill Hodous, Ramsey County Extension Service cropping systems specialist, says the lake as of April 1 was 1,451.54 feet above sea level, which is up from 1,451.48 feet on Oct. 24, 2012.

Devils Lake covered 69 square miles in 1992 and has grown to 285 square miles in 2011.

A North Dakota State University study in 2011 and 2012 estimated that the loss of farmland cost the region about $195 million in 2011 and $180 million in 2012.

Every foot of lake water takes 10,000 to 12,000 acres of farmland out of production, Hodous says. “With the expected rise this spring, it would take 20,000 to 24,000 acres of that we gained last fall because of how dry it was.”

Land under water is valued at $15 an acre for tax purposes, while the county average is $440 an acre. Landowners continue to pay about 20 cents an acre on inundated land, while the normal farmland is taxed at about $5.88 an acre, according to the Ramsey County tax office. Assessed value is determined on a formula, which includes 10-year running averages, expenses and interest rates.

Two pumps on the east and west side of the lake are designed to take a total of 1 to 1.5 feet of water off the lake in a year. But the pumps will likely start a month later than last year, even though they’ve gone later into the fall. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a control structure on the Tolna Coulee in 2012.

Hodous in March raised eyebrows when he said he expected May 22 would be the average start date for planting. There are fewer skeptics today. Faced with running short of “growing degree units” for corn, so many will probably switch to other crops, including edible beans and canola, which have the same disease threats. Rotations also will be adversely affected.

Webster says there’s a significant difference between flooding in Devils Lake and flooding on the river, because the water in the river basin tends to go down. Webster says it’s a hit for the farmers, yes, but also a hit for the economy as a whole.

As acres are inundated year after year, they’ve lost prevent-plant insurance status, and there’s no income stream.

“I’ve got quite a few retired landlords who have been counting on that income,” Webster says. “I paid them as long as I could, as long as there was any kind of revenue. That’s not a fun call to make (to say the payments are done). They say they understand, they all understand.”