Rice Lake people remember the 2011 flood that ruined several low-lying properties there, but area residents have been conflicted about the proper response to rising water levels in the lake.
As of a special meeting held Thursday by the Ward County Commissioners, though, the community will have to cease pumping water from the lake onto county-owned property immediately.
The issue is one of emotion and ideas, which led to one of the most contentious county meetings in recent memory with infighting among some commissioners and recognition between two opposing community groups that certain actions will lead to them meeting each other again in court.
Low-lying next to Rice Lake were inundated with water follwing the 2011 Souris River Flood. Concerns over rising water levels over winter have caused strife between various factions of the community over what the best course of action is.
"Back from probably end of February, March, April, May, it seemed like somebody from the Rice Lake District was here every meeting to talk about the pooling of water or permitting of the emergency pumping, diking, et cetera," said county auditor and treasurer Devra Smestad, framing the history of the Rice Lake issue at the beginning of the meeting. "The comment consistently was that once you can bring in proof that you have the permit to do this emergency pumping from the State Water Commission then we will look at the possibility of extending our authority to you to pool that water on county property."
The history is that the permit to pool water from the lake on county property, which happens to be land rented out to an area farmer to who received compensation from Rice Lake for loss of crops due to the water pooling, had expired May 17, 2012. A meeting was held just two days before that deadline and since no request was submitted to the commissioners by then to continue pumping then no action was taken and the deadline was to hold.
Except the pumping didn't stop.
Rice Lake obtained permission from the state, which is good until July 3, to continue pumping but that doesn't allow for the pooling continuing on the county land. The commissioners only discovered this discrepancy just before their Tuesday meeting, through an email sent to county emergency manager Amanda Schooling. There was much discussion at that meeting about what was going on but the topic was tabled because there were no Rice Lake representatives there.
"Our water is up, it's gone up all winter long. If we shut her down now we are going to be in deep, deep trouble," said Bob Hargrave of Rice Lake. He described the whole thing as a miscommunication, and that no representatives were available to attend Tuesday's regular meeting. He also said that he had not been told that there were more permits needed, and mentioned they were all up to date with the state permits and that the farmer who rents the land they pump on is okay with their compensation agreement.
This is a point Commissioner John Fjeldahl took offense to later in the meeting. As a farmer, he felt that the continued pooling would hurt the ability of the land to produce in the future and reminded the other commissioners of what floodwaters had done to other land following the Souris River flood. If the pumping makes the land unproductive for five or six years then that could really affect the value of the land, which is not owned by the farmer receiving the compensation. This was a comment in direct opposition to Commissioner Jerome Gruenberg's recognition that the farmer was compensated so that deal seems well and good.
This was a minor disagreement and Gruenberg conceded the point with a nod, but other moments were more tense.
"What we're basically doing is pumping on top, and yes some of that water is going back into the lake," Hargrave said. "We're trying to buy time until we can get our permanent drain in if we do get it in. From there we pump into our lagoons ... for evaporation."
It was the buying of time that other members of the community were concerned with. Essentially Rice Lake has been pumping away, with no permanent effects, for the past two years and some saw that as a sign that there was no end to the plan.
"As property owners we pay taxes and we should have more say into what really happens," said Rice Lake resident Gerald Fredriksen, who has filed complaints with the Rice Lake Recreation District over the pumping. "Our board out there kind of does what they want and given a chance Rice Lake could settle down on its own. But it has to be given a chance."
"There's two lakes also within a couple miles of Rice Lake to the south," said Mark Roen, who lives just south of Rice Lake. "Tangedahl Lake, and then on my side of the highway, on the south side of 23 is Vernon Lake. And over the past couple years, as the water rose, my lake also rose to record levels. It was almost inundating my barn. I never came to the county to ask for any money to move my barn or help me out. The same aquifer feeds Rice Lake and Tangedahl and Vernon Lake and we've done no pumping and my lake naturally went down without any pumping. I feel that with these guys pumping Rice Lake they're kind of artifically filling it back up."
Both Roen and Fredriksen cited environmental concerns of the pumping process, too. They feel that the pumping and the return of the water down to the lake is affecting underground aquifer pressures which could lead to landslides or even sinkholes like the one that swallowed a man in a Florida home last month.
Roen vowed not to sign an easement agreement with the district on a draining pipeline and supposed that the district had only obtained one or two agreements with the maybe 16 property owners who would be affected by such a pipeline.
"I've grown up around Rice Lake so I care about what happens to the lake," said John Pietsch, another area resident at the meeting. "In my opinion, pumping millions of gallons of water out of this Douglas Aquifer and putting it right above the lake, to me, it seems to be artificially raising the level of the lake ... I'm not saying don't pump period but try to pump in a controlled, limited fashion."
After further arguments were made, including a very heated discussion between commissioners Jerome Gruenberg and Shelly Weppler over what is "for the common good," the first motion was made by Fjeldahl.
Fjeldahl wanted to allow Rice Lake to continue pumping and draining until July 3, when their state permit expires, but then close any future authorization to extend that deadline would be permitted and they would have to come up with a more permanent solution. He continually cited that there seemed to be no plan "with an end," and that this has continued to be a temporary measure, which harms county land, for about two years and illegally since their permit expired in 2012. Fjeldahl was the only member to vote "yes." Commissioner Alan Walter abstained from both this first motion and the next.
The next motion, proposed by Gruenberg, would also be to allow Rice Lake to pump and drain until July 3, but then would allow them to request another authorization for an extension. This motion was split with Gruenberg and commission Chairman Jack Nybakken voting for it and Weppler and Fjeldahl against it. Due to Robert's Rules of Order, which is the standard rule book for official meetings, the tie ends in a rejection of the motion.
Rice Lake is now held to their original order, which was given when the commissioners discovered they were still pumping, to stop pumping immediately. The issue will be brought back up at the May 7 meeting of the Ward County Commissioners at 9 a.m.