Johnson, Belford off to Washington, DC and on a mission for Devils Lake

Mike Bellmore, Features Editor
Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson works at his desk in the administration offices of the Lake Region Law Enforcement Center.

Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson and County Commissioner Joe Belford will lead a group of members of the federal working group to Washington, D.C. on  Sept. 3.

The purpose of the meeting is to allow local and state leaders to provide additional feedback to members of the working group as its report on steps to address the Devils Lake flooding disaster is finalized.

Johnson says he hopes the federal government will level with the people around the lake.

“What we’re hoping for is to get water out of the east side,” Johnson says. “We don’t want any false hope from them and we want everybody to be honest and up front.”

Johnson said he met with a couple of Valley City commissioners late last week and said he was up front with them.

Valley City officials apparently stirred the pot a bit when commissioners there last week  voted to armor the Tolna Coulee at 1,458 feet.

New Valley City commissioner Matt Pederson told Johnson and City Engineer Mike Grafsgaard in a letter the reason he voted for it was to reduce fears, strengthen a known weakness in the lake and buy a couple more years to design and build a control structure with an outlet somewhere else on the lake.

Pederson said it was not the Save The Sheyenne organization  that prodded him to vote for the armoring, which is actually rip-rapping to protect it from erosion.

He says he is fully supportive of a controlled outlet out of Devils Lake, but hopes for a different spot.

Johnson says he believes there is ample room for Devils Lake and Valley City to work together, and some sort of compromise could be in order.

“I am truly an advocate for Devils Lake in this matter and have stated publicly on several occasions that I will fight for a long-term solution with an outlet included in the plan beyond the current west end outlet capacity,” Pederson wrote.

“If down the road we determine that the Tolna Coulee is the best place to build this controlled outlet structure, we will cross that road when we get there, but at least we will have an insurance policy by armoring it now.”

Johnson feels the two communities have a lot of room to work with together.

There are some new people on the Valley City commission that may need time to catch up on some issues.

The focus will now turn to the Washington, D.C. meeting, where Johnson, Belford and a handful of others will be asked for input prior to the Sept. 7 release of the Interagency Task Force report.

Belford, who has been one of the main players in the 17-year fight, says he hopes to represent  the area well with all the ammunition he can find.

“They (the government) need to tell us what they can do for us and put it all on the table,” he says.

“We need to know where we both stand and pull it all together for a solution. Weigh things and make a decision.”

Belford added that a solution is long overdue and a solution is of paramount importance.

Johnson added that federal officials must be told that the region can take no more water and will accept no more waiting.

“We just want to know if they can help us or not,” he added.” If not, the next step will be legal action. The hope is to get water out of the east side.”

One of the real issues confronting both federal and local officials is the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) standards regarding water quality.

Both sides need to know if existing standards can be relaxed on several levels.

Help will also be asked for on street conditions because of the water pressure that currently exists due to all the water.

Johnson says the next couple of months will be pivotal.

The Sept. 3 meeting will not only provide local groups with input to the Interagency Task Force, but also give the ITF dialogue with local officials for a dialogue on options under consideration.