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Refuge has lots of room for water storage

While flood events along the Red and Missouri rivers dominate headlines in North Dakota, officials with the Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex are prepared to deal with concerns that may result from high runoff in the Des Lacs and Souris river basins.

4/01/09 (Wed)


While flood events along the Red and Missouri rivers dominate headlines in North Dakota, officials with the Souris River Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex are prepared to deal with concerns that may result from high runoff in the Des Lacs and Souris river basins.


At the present time, however, no major problems are expected for the immediate area.


According to Dave Bolin, refuge manager at the Des Lacs NWR, the past two years of drought conditions have left the Des Lacs lakes with plenty of water storage capacity. “The refuge lakes went into the fall very low, which is a good scenario for the amount of snow we’ve gotten and the amount of runoff we could get this spring,” he said. “We’re in a position where we can store a lot of water, much more than we could normally store, which should reduce flooding downstream.”


Because of the arrangement of water control units and high points on the Des Lacs lakes, refuge personnel can actually divert water from the southern end of the refuge to the northern end. “An example of that will be runoff coming from Tasker’s Coulee,” said Bolin. “To push that water north, we have to keep structure Number Four open.”


The plan is a change from normal spring operations at the Des Lacs NWR. “We’ll be pushing excess water into Units One and Two,” said Bolin, “but we’re going to try not to increase storage there too much because we don’t have the capacity to draw them down. If we push water to the north, we’ll be depending on climate to draw the water levels down to our objectives.”


A shallower water depth is preferable in the Upper Lake because it allows for better vegetative growth and, therefore, more use by waterfowl during the summer and fall months.


However, the more immediate concern of spring runoff is taking precedence. “Right now, we’re focusing on reducing impact to downstream landowners,” Bolin said. “We’re planning on holding water to our full potential until downstream flooding subsides. A lot of coulees flow into the Des Lacs south of the refuge. We hope that all flows through while we’re storing water.”


He expects the refuge lakes to quickly reach capacity this spring, with water released later in the season to accommodate management goals. In fact, structures Four and Six are scheduled for replacement this summer, but Bolin said current conditions should not delay that construction.


The heavy snow accumulations pose a problem for property owners along the rivers, but the runoff will have a positive effect for sloughs and potholes across the landscape. “With all the potholes drying out the past couple years, they should fill up again now, which will increase the production of the system,” said Bolin, adding that more nutrients would be released and more invertebrate activity would occur to feed more waterfowl. “We should see a spike in duck numbers in a year like this.”


Flood forecasts released Monday by the National Weather Service predicted a 94 percent chance of the Des Lacs River reaching 16.5 feet, half a foot above flood stage, with Carpio and Foxholm in the path of potential overflows.


However, Carpio mayor Jamie Armstrong was encouraged by plans to store water at the Des Lacs NWR. “We’ve made sure everything is in order,” he said, adding that the community has access to sand and a small supply of sandbags on hand. “Hopefully, we don’t need it.”


A group of residents has already taken steps to keep runoff flowing freely through town by clearing some drainage ditches and culverts that have been blocked and caused problems in the past.


“The nice thing is that everything was so dry [last summer],” he said. “Now, it depends on how it thaws. If we have a gradual thaw, we’ll be in good shape.”


Upper Souris has lots

of storage room, too

Personnel at the Upper Souris NWR are also waiting for the spring runoff to begin, while keeping a close eye on predictions from the National Weather Service, the North Dakota State Water Commission and the Saskatchewan Water Authority. The Souris (Mouse) River flows south of Saskatchewan through the refuge to Burlington, Minot and Velva. At that point, the channel turns to flow north through the J. Clark Salyer NWR into Manitoba. Several smaller rivers will empty their runoff waters into the Souris, including the Des Lacs River where it joins the Souris at a point near Burlington.


“We’re following all current predictions on an hourly basis,” said Tom Pabian, refuge manager at Upper Souris NWR. He was particularly concerned about the stretch of river between the refuge and Towner. “It all depends on what Mother Nature brings us. We’re the only controlled dam that flows through the Souris Basin until you get to the J. Clark Salyer refuge.”


Lake Darling is in a position to store a great deal of runoff. “We’re eight to nine feet below where we’d like to be,” Pabian said.


The lake’s current elevation is 1,590’, while the normal summer operating level is 1,597’. “We can take the lake up to 1,601 feet during a flood event,” said Pabian. “Then we would have to drop it down to 1,597 feet after runoff.”


At the 1,601’ elevation, the lake could hold about 100,000 acre feet of water.


Kelly Hogan, project leader for the Souris River Basin Complex, noted that the Rafferty and Alameda reservoirs on the Souris River in Saskatchewan were also at low levels and capable of storing a great deal of water upstream from Lake Darling. “They’re needing water and they’re going to hold what they can,” he said, adding that the increased run-off this spring could provide a benefit to the fishery at those reservoirs as well as Lake Darling.


Hogan and Pabian emphasized that because of international agreements for managing Souris River water levels on both sides of the border and the potential for flooding this spring, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is overseeing all decisions regarding the river at this time. “The Corps actually becomes the lead agency for managing Lake Darling,” said Hogan, “ and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already mobilized resources in anticipation of a flooding event. At this point, though, we are cautiously optimistic about being able to hold quite a bit of water.”


According to Monday’s flood forecast by the NWS, communities along the Souris River downstream from Lake Darling with a high potential for flooding included Sawyer, Logan, Bantry and Westhope.


Ward County issued a flood emergency declaration on Monday, with sandbagging operations beginning Tuesday and continuing through the week at sites in Minot for county residents facing potential flood concerns.