Amid rolling hills and a lake that continues invading communities in central North Dakota, lies a control structure here that the district is building to prevent catastrophic erosion.
The Tolna Coulee project is not a dam. It will not initiate erosion or slow it down, but the 800-foot wide structure will regulate the amount of water that would flow through the coulee if Stump Lake were to reach 1,458 feet above sea level, said Violet Albright, New Orleans District employee temporarily assigned as the project engineer. The project is currently scheduled to finish sometime in early April.
Until recently, Stump Lake and Devils Lake were completely separate bodies of water. The boundary lines from the past have since dissolved because of the continued flooding. Since 1993, the lake has risen more than 30 feet, destroying roads and inundating thousands of acres of farmland.
The lake reached record high levels last year with an elevation of 1,454.4 feet. The National Weather Service, or NWS, is currently forecasting that the lake will reach 1,453.8 feet this summer. According to the NWS, there is around a 20 percent chance that the lake will reach last year’s record. The lake fluctuates due to snow, rain and evaporation.
Bill Csajko, project management, said the current lake elevation of approximately 1,453 feet, is merely five feet from naturally overtopping the coulee. If the lake levels continue to rise and the water overtops the natural outlet elevation, the subsequent erosion could tragically impact downstream communities along the Sheyenne River to include Valley City, N.D., and Lisbon, N.D.
While the project is not favored by every citizen within the area, Csajko said he understands the concerns from both residents near the lake that want the water elevations dropped immediately and downstream groups that are concerned with increased water within the river. Despite resistance within the two groups, he said the control structure is needed. “It’s critical in the fact that if we did have an event that caused the erosion within the coulee, the structure would save downstream communities from complete disaster,” he said.
Winter construction in North Dakota
Working outdoors in North Dakota during the winter can be difficult. Albright said the weather has been the biggest challenge not because of the cold and snow, rather the warm conditions are melting the water. She said active springs within the construction site have filled the area with water when temperatures reach at least 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The conditions have “added an aspect of fun,” she said.
Despite the weather challenges of warm days and occasional days where the temperature drops to negative 15 degrees, the workers continues moving toward the deadline. Jason Johns, engineering and construction, said, “We’ve done really well considering the work and weather factors.”
Johns, who has been the quality assurance representative on the project since the first day of construction, spends his days with the contractors ensuring the project is built to the specifications. “It’s a necessary evil,” he said. “But it’s a part of construction during the winter in North Dakota.” He added that it’s important to physically observe the work being done.