North Dakota's state Water Commission is moving forward with plans for a $15.3 million upgrade to the system of canals and pipes that drains Devils Lake floodwaters into the Sheyenne River.
Downstream opponents, meanwhile, are stepping up their opposition.
The Water Commission, chaired by Gov. John Hoeven, voted unanimously Thursday to give chief engineer Dale Frink the authority to contract for the multimillion outlet upgrade. The work, funded from state oil taxes and tobacco settlement money, will include power supplies, pump stations and water-filtering equipment.
The upgrade will allow the outlet to pump 250 cubic feet of water per second and move up to 6 inches of water off the flooded lake under ideal conditions.
The outlet's capacity at present is 100 cubic feet of water per second. It took about 2 inches of water off the lake this year before it was shut down on Oct. 31 for the winter, officials said.
Years of wet weather have caused the lake to triple in size since the early 1990s, flooding homes, roads and fields. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to help residents battle the water. Devils Lake surpassed its modern-day record high of 1,450.72 feet last summer. On Thursday, it measured 1449.95 feet, an increase of about 28 feet since 1992.
The outlet that drains the swollen lake into the Sheyenne has been stifled in recent years by permit rules that limited the level of sulfates in the river to 450 milligrams per liter of water. The state Health Department approved a change last summer to a maximum of 750 milligrams that could allow the Water Commission to run the outlet nonstop.
A group called Downstream Residents Opposed to more Devils Lake Water believes raising the sulfate level is illegal. Opponents want the state to hire an independent, out-of-state group to study why the lake is rising and the outlet's effect on the Sheyenne River.
Members of the group held a news conference in Valley City and issued a statement saying they sent petitions to the state Health Department calling for a halt to the outlet.
"A growing number of citizens are willing to speak up because they want to be part of an effective solution, which will not waste taxpayer money nor cause hardship or ecological damage downstream," the statement said.
Bruce Engelhardt, an assistant Water Commission engineer, said the outlet was in operation for 165 days this year. He said the lake has not risen since the outlet was shut down.
"We've had zero precipitation" in November," he said.