County talks Rice Lake water issues

RICE LAKE Amanda Schooling had only one real topic to present at Tuesday’s meeting of the Ward County Commission to suspend the emergency declaration made on April 25 to deal with Rice Lake’s rising water issues. She received a phone call asking for help from a Rice Lake resident just five minutes before she got up to speak, resulting in the issue being tabled.

Schooling said that the state’s declaration expired May 8 and that the only remaining help the Rice Lake Recreation District will get is from the county, like the 3,000 sandbags dropped off for them Tuesday.

Some residents there said that the water was the highest they’ve ever seen. Of about 170 cabins and homes around the lake, there are about 20 that could be considered “heavily flooded,” although Michael Braun of the Rice Lake District Board has said that there’s not a property owner who doesn’t have some kind of damage.

The problem remains the Douglas Aquifer, by Braun’s estimation. The roughly four inches of rain that has fallen in the past week hasn’t helped either. Braun said “you don’t get an inch of rain at the lake and only have it come up an inch,” saying the problem actually multiplies because Rice Lake is somewhat of a “bowl.”

“Not once has this rec. district ever asked for money from the county or townships,” Braun said. “There’s been sandbags … and that’s been fully appreciated, but we’ve never come right out and asked for funding or money or have we received it.”

The district has, however, gone to the state for support.

The district has received $2.8 million in state funding to build a drainage pipe system. The plan began to be developed after Rice Lake first began flooding in 2011, but the pipe has not yet been laid, pending some signatures from area farmers to allow for the pipe to be laid under their land. The pipe will pass the property of 14 different farms but the exact number still needed to sign has not been divulged pending possible legal action.

“That’s the part that’s holding it up right now, the signing of the easements,” Braun said. “We’ve even changed the pipe’s original route along road easements” to stay off the farmer’s property as much as possible.

“The state says we need this. They gave us the money for this. We’ve hired engineers to approve this. Who are people to fight us about it? Why are they fighting us on this? We need to get this permanent solution done,” said Shane Soltis, whose house on the lake has been flooded. “We’ve had engineers design a plan to go south. It’s all been approved.”

There appear to be two factions of residents along the lake, however. Some may feel that it is the many spending money on fixing a problem bothering the few who live on the much lower-lying south end of the lake.

“Obviously the pipeline process was put through a vote that people approved,” Braun said of the vote last fall. “On the pumping, whether you’re for or against it, it has helped.”

And there are many residents against that pumping, with many voicing their opinions at county meetings.

There have been two main arguments made about the pumping issue. The argument voiced the most is that this may be a self-made problem. While the natural drainage of the lake lies to the southeast, the area hardest hit by flood waters, the district has been pumping northeast onto county land above an aquifer. That pumping has forced the pressure of the Douglas Aquifer to build and drain back into the lake at a rate either faster to or equal to how fast it’s being pumped out. Another argument is that area farmers feel that the water pooling has ruined parts of their farmland without compensation.

“Maybe you do have some points there, but you’re still avoiding the issue. We’ve got to get it done,” Soltis said. “It doesn’t matter if we created this mess by pumping. Say we did create this mess, just say we did. It still needs to be fixed, we still need to get this permanent solution done. Stopping the pumping isn’t going to be the answer, stopping this temporary pumping. It’s not going to help anything; it’s just going to create a bigger mess and destroy our sewer system.”

“The concern with the sewer has been great because their lift stations have been running nonstop and it is a possibility it could burn out and that could cause some problems for them,” Schooling said, summarizing the primary reason the district has been pumping the water out of the lake. Schooling says the pumps have been “running non-stop for the past few days.”

“If our sewer system fails, we’re screwed. As I understand it a health unit comes in and shuts the whole lake down,” Soltis said.

The culvert installed at the natural drainage to the southeast was plugged, another controversial move. According to Braun, engineers have looked at the culvert and have said that it will drain the lake an inch at most, but that inch would come at the expense of four properties located directly behind it.

“Some of the public perception is that these are just secondary homes, cabins. Sure, some are, but I would take it to the next level that these are people’s property and some of them are full-time homes,” Braun said of the 30 full-time residents out of the 170 people who own homes there. “People are going to form opinions no matter what … We’re as close to a municipality as we can get without being one.”

The tax base around the lake, which is worth about $20 million, he says, is larger than a lot of incorporated communities in the area.

“We wouldn’t go to this type of extent to protect the erosion of beach-front property there,” he said. “This is impacting people’s lives, period.”

Other business at the county meeting:

Several county highway and road improvement projects were authorized by the commissioners.

“We need to get rid of that death trap,” Commissioner Alan Walter said of the intersection of the U.S. Highway 83 Bypass and U.S. Highway 2 following the fatal crash last Thursday that took the life of Megan Shoal, 21, Plentywood, Mont. “I’m not sure how many have died there but it is a death trap.” The commissioners agreed to discuss the intersection at a later meeting, with one of them making a suggestion for ramps rather than an intersection.

“It’s going to review the current status of the Tax Equalization office and review the new programs we started instituting five years ago,” Commissioner Shelly Weppler said of a new task-force she spoke of at the meeting. “We’re going to look at that in the midst of hiring our new tax director so that we have everything online and organized … It’s going to be a program that’s going to make everything a lot easier once it’s created.”

Jerome Gruenberg mentioned he received letters complaining that certain homeowner’s taxes went up dramatically. “We used to offer a $75,000 tax break for two-years for new home construction, same as the city of Minot,” he said. The homeowners had forgotten that their tax exemption would run out after two years.