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Team nears finish line on Devils Lake, N.D., emergency work

Published Oct. 28, 2013
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Mathew Andersen, left, engineering and construction, and Bonnie Greenleaf, project management,discuss the Devils Lake, N.D., project July 31.

DEVILS LAKE, N.D. -- Mathew Andersen, left, engineering and construction, and Bonnie Greenleaf, project management,discuss the Devils Lake, N.D., project July 31.

The St. Paul District will substantially complete its emergency flood risk management project in Devils Lake, N.D., this fall, marking the end of an almost three decade long flood fight.

Devils Lake at its current elevation has no natural outlet. In 1993, according to the North Dakota State Water Commission, the lake was at its lowest recorded levels at 1,422.62 feet. At its peak, in June 2011, the lake hit an elevation of 1,454.3 feet, rising approximately 32 feet and covering an additional 261 square miles of land.

If it were to reach 1,458 feet, the lake will naturally flow into the Sheyenne River. The Tolna Coulee control structure, another district project, completed in the summer of 2012, was built to control the lake from causing catastrophic damages downstream, if the lake were to reach this elevation.

This most recent project at Devils Lake included increasing already in place embankments from 8 to 12 miles and raising them from elevation 1,460 to 1,466 feet. The project included installing five additional pump stations: the Highway 20 pump, which has a capacity for 5,000 gallons per minute, or gpm; the Lakewood pump with a capacity for 20,000 gpm; the Creel Bay pump with a capacity for 100,000 gpm; and the East Ditch pump with a capacity of 320,000 gpm.

Civil engineer and project manager Bonnie Greenleaf began working on the Devils Lake project in 1996. She said the project was originally built to 1,445 feet in the 1980s. When Greenleaf started working on the project, it was to be the first of many raises – at that time to 1,450 feet. After the 1997 flood, the district put a hold on all contracts and redesigned the project to 1,457 feet. She said the team working on the project then designed the embankments wide enough so they could be topped off with an additional three feet, if needed, in the future. In 2005, she continued, it was decided to take the embankments to 1,460 feet, but the lake continued to rise. In 2007, the district received $5 million to look at the rising lake further. “We had planned to do a report and plans and then put it on the shelf,” said Greenleaf. “But in 2008, we got a bad forecast, and we decided we had to go to construction.”  

This latest plan included building the project in four phases, with the first phase beginning construction in the spring of 2010 and the second phase being split into two phases because of its complexity. The federal government’s 75 percent was funded by Flood Control and Coastal Emergency monies. Ultimately, it took around six years and approximately $168 million to build, making it one of the quickest built, larger projects in the district’s history. “The team was awesome,” said Greenleaf. “They were under a lot of pressure, with multiple phases going on at the same time, for a long time.”

Overall, though, raising the project off and on during the last two decades made the local people a little bit crazy, said Greenleaf. “We were using emergency funds,” she explained. “We kind of had to do it this way.” At the same time, even though it was considered an emergency project, she said, the team still had to complete a full Environmental Assessment, just like they would for a non-emergency project. Plus, they were one of the first teams in the country to be required to complete an Independent External Peer Review. “We still had to cross all of the (T)s and dot all the (I)s,” she explained. “So although the whole project took years, it was still a race against rising waters.”

Project engineer and contracting officer’s representative Tom Schmitt said the biggest challenge of the project was the scale and the complexity. “It is one of the biggest projects the district has ever done,” he said. “Staffing was a major issue, and we needed to have regional support from other districts to complete the job.” Weather was also a challenge. He said frigid winters, late springs and wet weather contributed to extending the project an additional year than first planned.