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82-year-old Ernest Grotte of Finley uses a spade for balance as he crosses the Tolna Coulee before Monday's rally. Grotte, a retired farmer, said he came to the rally to support farmers in the Devils Lake basin who are being flooded out . Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

1.000 flooded farmers rally to reclaim land from flooded Devils Lake basin

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RURAL TOLNA, N.D. -- Ernest Grotte traveled 60 miles from his home Monday, shovel in tow, to walk through the marshy wetland of the Tolna Coulee and to turn over a spadeful or two of mud.

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"I want to help get rid of this mess," the 82-year-old farmer said. "I have a lot of friends up here who are really suffering because of this flood. They've been talking about this for 10 years or more. And nothing's gotten done. Now, it looks like nature might take care of it for us."

Grotte joined about 1,000 others, many of them taking a day off from planting or other fieldwork, in Monday's rally in a field overlooking the Tolna Coulee, a natural outlet from Stump Lake to the Sheyenne River.

The rally, organized by Citizens United to Regain Equality, was a protest against a planned 5.5 mile long, state-sponsored east-end outlet.

CURE contends the state and federal governments should put a control structure on the Tolna Coulee rather than building a new outlet, which they say would save millions of dollars and be more effective.

"Gravity is free," was the refrain repeated by nearly half of the more than one dozen speakers.

"It's time to be practical, not political," was another.

Everybody's problem

Devils Lake, which has risen by more than 30 feet and quadrupled in size in the past 18 years, now stands less than four feet from spilling naturally through adjoining Stump Lake to the Tolna Coulee and the Sheyenne River. The lake elevation was at 1,454.1 feet Monday, about two feet higher than the 2010 record.

"This isn't just our problem. It's everybody's problem," said Nelson County Commissioner Dan Marquart, one of the rally organizers. "If Stump Lake spills, it's going to hurt people in Valley City, in Lisbon, all the way to West Fargo, and every place in between."

One by one, farmers, resort owners and local officials offered stories -- many of them personal -- of the cost of the 18-year-old flood.

They talked of the 22 traffic deaths in the past 15 years of people drowning after their vehicles ran off roads.

They talked of homes that, if not flooded, are inaccessible because of inundated roads; they talked of the constant road construction, as highways are built higher and higher.

Col. Michael Price, St. Paul District commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, acknowledged last week that Devils Lake flood threat is an "urgent situation," adding that some 15 feet of sediment that has built up in the Tolna Coulee over the years is at risk of washing out.

"Can you imagine the water going through here now if we didn't have that silt in there?" Marquart asked.

An aide to Gov. Jack Dalrymple asked Marquart for a copy of his speech, saying the governor and staff members would discuss the issue. A petition signed by many at the rally also would be sent to the governor's office.

That's not to say the state has any intention of altering its plans to build an east-end outlet from East Devils Lake to the Tolna Coulee. The estimated $60 million-plus project is expected to begin within weeks and be completed by late spring 2012.

"We need to do all that we can to keep this project on schedule," the governor said last week. "The construction of an east-end outlet is a major part of our strategy to alleviate flooding in the Devils Lake Basin and to protect downstream communities."

Marquart and others urged their neighbors to attend two public meetings hosted by the Corps to discuss outlet project plans. Today's meeting, at 7 p.m., was moved from the Ramsey County Courthouse to the Devils Lake High School Sports Center to accommodate an anticipated large crowd. The other is at 2 p.m. Wednesday in Cooperstown, N.D., in the Cooperstown/Griggs County Economic Development Building.

"I think it was a success," Marquart said of the rally, "Just to show how people pulled together made it all worth it. Now that we've got the ball rolling, we've got to keep it rolling."

The North Dakota Highway Patrol and sheriff's departments from Benson, Nelson and Ramsey counties provided traffic control, including temporary traffic lane closings along U.S. Highway 2 to accommodate rally-goers leaving the event. No incidents were reported.

Nature's plan

Arthur Price has heard it all before.

Now 104, the retired farmer from Esmond, N.D., southwest of Devils Lake, saw President Franklin Roosevelt when he visited Devils Lake in August 1934, during the drought of the century, promising to do all he could to bring Missouri River water to Devils Lake. The idea was not only to provide relief from the drought, but to help stabilize the local economy by providing an inlet and possibly an outlet.

"We hope that nature is going to open the heavens," the president said at the time. After seeing a dark cloud in the sky as he got to his railcar outdoor platform, he said, "All I can say is, I hope to goodness it is going to rain, good and plenty."

Rains finally did come, and the Garrison Diversion Project was built 30 years later, but the canal to Devils Lake never was completed.

And except for a mini-drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the lake has been rising ever since.

"They could just as well have finished it back then," Rice said, "and we'd have no problem whatsoever. Now, it looks like nature might take over again."

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