Rice Lake discussed at County Commission

The plan for dealing with rising water levels at Rice Lake in southwestern Ward County is an emotional issue. The memories of floodwaters destroying low-lying homes along the shoreline in 2011 are hard memories to bear, and those who live either full-time or part-time in the Rice Lake Recreational District will do anything they can to keep that from happening again.

Following Tuesday morning’s special Ward County Commission meeting, though, they may well have to take their ideas for a permanent solution to court.

The problem, though, as stated in Tuesday’s meeting and at meetings held on April 16 and April 18, is there is no solid plan for dealing with the rising waters. The Rice Lake Recreation District wants to purchase easements on area properties in order to build a pipeline for a permanent drainage solution. There are different accounts on how long it has taken to gain the one easement and the one pending easement for the project, which would require 16, but Michael Braun, the vice president of the board of directors for the Rice Lake Recreational District, says it has taken two months.

Currently, the district has permits from the North Dakota State Water Commission to pump water out of the lake where they pool it on farmland at a higher elevation than the lake.

There are three problems with this pumping.

Permission from the county to pool that pumped water onto county-owned property expired last May. When the commissioners found out that the district was still pumping without their permission they called their first meeting on it to figure out what was going on. Once this project started, the schism that elevated Tuesday morning’s meeting from a standard one to one of heat and contention became apparent.

Not only is the water being pooled on county property on an expired permit, but the pooling is affecting other landowners as well.

“I’m being flooded out by them pumping water up on me,” said Delos Haugen, who lives in Burlington but owns land to the south and southwest of Rice Lake. “Two months after they started pumping it’s running right back into the lake as fast as they can pump it. In the meantime they’ve flooded out all my lowland on my farmland. For the last two years they’ve wrecked my crop … I don’t appreciate that and I ain’t been compensated a dime from them guys.”

This reflects the same argument Commissioner John Fjeldahl had at last Thursday’s meeting. He was concerned that the county-owned land currently leased to an area farmer who receives compensation for crop loss due to the pooling will be ruined by the water and will take several years to recover its productivity, thus reducing the land value should the county lease it again or sell it.

But the argument isn’t as simple as farmland flooding as opposed to home flooding.

Some of the opposition to the pumping is that the pumping itself, they say, is ineffective. Not only does the water run back into the lake, but the aquifer it is fed by builds up pressure and raises the water level to make up for the water pumped out, artificially raising the lake. That was an argument made by area residents Gerald Fredriksen and Mark Roen at Thursday’s meeting. Fredriksen returned again this week but only brought up what he saw as illegal activity on the Rice Lake board’s part, but was told that was something he would have to discuss with an attorney.

Attorneys will be coming, after all. As Bob Hargrave of Rice Lake said at Thursday’s meeting, the two groups may have to see each other in court so that the Rice Lake board can be granted easements on land to develop a pipeline to drain the lake rather than pump it.

That’s the permanent solution proposed by Rice Lake and the topic of Tuesday’s meeting.

“I want to keep this to the point,” commission chairman Jack Nybakken said, echoing the sentiment several times throughout the meeting as shouts and comments would come from the crowd or the discussion would move away from the easement.

“When my thumb starts hurting and I look down and realize I’m hitting it with a hammer then I realize I better stop hitting it with a hammer,” said Ron Kramer creating an analogy for what he saw as the counter-intuitive nature of the pumping. He was also against the easements. The argument that people have patience and allow the lake to level off by itself remained from all those on this side of the argument. “My personal feeling is that if you create your own mess then you need to clean it up.”

“This district has never received a dime from the county, nor asked for it,” Braun said, framing the argument on personal terms. He also took offense to the idea that the district has been made out to be “vigilantes” doing something completely on their own without permission. In support of this, Bob Hargrave at a prior meeting had referred to the permits issue as a lack of communication and that nothing had been meant by it. “What we’ve done has been done through our legal right of assessment and vote.”

He then brought information up that he felt had been misrepresented by the commission and reprinted in larger scale by the media, including former articles in this series. The first is that the district knows that the pumping is only a temporary measure. The second is that various area boards have been putting things in motion for a permanent solution for a long time.

“Not only is that in place, gentlemen, it’s been approved, it’s been funded, we’re working out the final details … All we’re needing now is to secure the easements,” he said. “That’s where that project lies.”

After a motion by Fjeldahl, which was to allow the district to continue pumping until their permit with the state water commission expires and then for the county not to renew its lease with the farmer allowing the district to pool on the county land when it expires in October, failed to garner a second in support and was defeated it looks like the dispute might end up in court.

Although a future meeting could be held on the topic, no clue was given as to whether that will happen and the issue is likely out of county hands.