RICE LAKE - Rice Lake property owners are hoping the worst may be over, at least for now. The popular Ward County lake experienced rising water in 2011. The high water continued to cause trouble this year, but now the lake is experiencing a reversal of fortune. The water has begun to decline.
"The water level is down, about 16 inches from this past spring. It is significant," said Bob Hargrave, a Rice Lake resident.
Rice Lake's high-water woes in 2012 followed the rapid rise of the lake in 2011, a year in which high water marks were common in many parts of North Dakota. The rising water at Rice Lake reached about 50 cabins and flooded many other structures such as sheds, boat houses, docks and decks. Yards were inundated too, leaving some cabin owners with soggy and damaged lawns and dead shrubbery.
This year’s high water mark can clearly be seen on this Rice Lake cabin. About 50 properties at the lake have been similarly affected by high water.
Cabin owners fought the rising water with diking and sandbags but, for many, it proved to be a losing battle. Several properties had to be abandoned or moved out of harm's way. Some of them were permanent residences. Hydrologists warned that Rice Lake could continue to rise even as water levels in other areas of the region began to recede. The outlook was bleak.
A coalition of cabin owners responded by funding an aggressive pumping project that moved water from Rice Lake to a nearby slough just northeast of the lake. However, while the pumping did begin to draw down the lake, it wasn't long before seepage from the slough entered Douglas aquifer and worked its way back into Rice Lake. It was a vicious cycle, said hydrologists, because Rice Lake may be situated on the low point of the aquifer. While pumping helped stem the rise of the lake, it became readily apparent it would not be a permanent solution.
"We had a pump go down but we got a great big pump back in the lake on Friday," said Hargrave. "We'll try and get some more wiggle room before spring. We know the lake is still on the rise."
Rice Lake rose more than four feet in the past two years, a devastating amount of water for a lake where numerous properties are situated nearly at water level. An estimated 35 of the 168 properties were year-round homes. Some of those were lost to rising water.
What Rice Lake residents hope is a long-term solution to problems caused by high water is about to become a reality. The State Water Commission has approved funding for an estimated $6 million dollar project that would pump excess Rice Lake water into Douglas Creek. Douglas Creek is located about 10 1/2 miles south of the lake and flows into Lake Sakakawea.
"Six million dollars is ballpark," said Hargrave. "The State Water Commission will cover 60 percent and the property owners will pay the rest. Every process is a victory. We'll just take it one step at a time."
Exactly how many dollars each Rice Lake property owner will be assessed is not yet known. That amount will become more evident as bids are received from contractors who will do the installation of the lengthy pipeline. If all goes well, the project could be completed in the second half of 2013 and stable water levels should return to Rice Lake.