The Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board


What is the idea behind the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project?  The concept of the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project came about in December of 2001 when the suggestion was made to investigate the possibility of using Basin waters as a ‘value added’ procedure in the Basin itself to irrigate crops where feasible.

What type of research has taken place up to this time on this possibility?  In early 2002 the State Water Commission and the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board jointly funded a reconnaissance level study in four ‘major’ areas of the Devils Lake Basin where excess surface water was readily available.   This study, completed in August 2002, indicated the potential did exist for water to be used to enhance the evapotranspiration of growing crops.  This process is not new, having been used successfully for decades in disposal of municipal wastewater in communities as close as Mitchell, SD and Park Rapids, MN.

Did the study find farmland suitable for irrigation?  The recon-study, a ‘snapshot’ of four areas of the Devils Lake Basin (Sweetwater Morrison, Hurricane Lake, East Chain of Lakes and Spirit Lake Nation areas) showed up to thousands of acres of irrigable or potentially irrigable acres.  This information was gathered using soils maps of the areas provided by the NRCS and are quarter sections that have at least 50% irrigable type soils.

The Devils Lake Basin is over saturated right now with water, how can you expect to add more water to Basin croplands?  The recon-study showed that since 1993, if the project had been in place, the irrigable soils could have used an additional 9” of moisture each year.  Much of the rains that fall in the Basin come in May-June-July.  Many of the crops raised in the Basin, even now, could use additional moisture as they mature later in the growing season.   The study also showed,  if the full-scale  project had been in place since 1993, the lake could have been  almost four feet lower than its present level.

What is the next step in the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project?  There are still many questions to be answered before moving ahead with a full-scale project. In 2005 the Devils Lake Basin Joint Board started a Test Project with ten pivots involving approximately 1100 acres of land.  In addition to standard crops (small grains & beans) two sites will involve specialty crops (onions, cabbage, bell peppers) and one site will be in alfalfa.  Estimated total cost of the 3 year test project is $1.4 million dollars (US).

Are local farmers interested in the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project and Test Project?  Thirty-six area farmers from six counties listed over 9000 acres of land for consideration for the Test Project from which the ten sites were picked.

Who decided which sites will be used in the Test Project?   The technical portion of the Test Study was directed by several agencies including NDSU, ND State Water Commission, the primary engineering consultant and other interested agencies.  In addition an ‘advisory board’ is  involved with representatives of the Joint Board, downstream interests, NDSU Extension, State Water Commission and other state & federal agencies.

What are some of the questions the Test Project will seek to answer?  The Test Project will be looking to answer the following questions and others that may be determined by the technical staff involved:  how much additional water can growing crops in the Basin area be stimulated to use, would the use of Basin surface water result in a detrimental application of salts to the soil, what crops and crop rotation would be most beneficial, what management practices will be needed in the ultimate full scale project involving thousands of acres, how could removed volumes of water affect overabundant surface water volumes, and how can water application and water use through the application method be maximized?

What happens if it stops raining?  If the wet cycle starts to decline, the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project would have to be scaled back through proper management practices under the guidance of the District Management.  The current concept calls for ‘inefficient’ type systems that could easily be converted to more efficient use of available water.   The whole idea of this program is the utilization of ‘excess’ waters in the Devils Lake Basin.  Currently, highly respected forecasters are saying the ‘wet cycle’ will last until the year 2015 in the Devils Lake Basin.

Can the farmer afford this high priced equipment?  The estimated average price per irrigated acre in this project is approximately $1242 per acre including the pivot.  Some areas in the Basin (Sweetwater-Morrison) the average price per acre, including the pivot, is as low as $734.  The full-scale project would include a partnership between the farm operators, state and federal governments.  The investment for the state and federal governments could be far less than other proposed solutions.    For the Test Project portion of this effort, the entire cost is envisioned to be provided by the Project Sponsors to lessen the risk to the participating landowner; upon completion of the Test Project the participating landowner will  be offered the opportunity to purchase any equipment (pivots or pumps) which would have no further use to the Project Sponsors.

Does the Water Utilization Project make economic sense?  The recon-study, using NDSU figures shows a difference of $481 income per acre between traditional cropping composites and the irrigate crop composite.  Using the average estimated cost of $1242 per acre the recon-study shows an estimated return on investment of 42% not including local, state and federal taxes paid on income.

 How is the $1.4 million Test Project  funded?  The Devils Lake Basin Joint Board is currently working with the State Water Commission and the ND Congressional Delegation in funding the Test Project. .  To date local businesses, economic development groups, financial institutions and utilities in the Basin Community have contributed almost $100,000 towards the Test Project.  The State Water Commission has made a contractual commitment to fund 50% of the local Test Project costs, up to $302,000.   U.S. Senator Byron Dorgan and other members of the North Dakota Congressional Delegation have secured federal funding in excess of $900,000 to assist with the project costs.

What is the Time Table to Begin Work on the Test Project?   The contract for the irrigation equipment ($750,000 U.S.) was awarded by the Joint Board in December 2004.  Construction started immediately at the sites and was completed by June 2005 .  Several problems, not anticipated, slowed the application of water on most of the sites in 2005.   NDSU staff completed installation most of their test equipment and soil sampling by the end of 2005.  It is anticipated that full scale operation will be underway during 2006.

What is the next step, if the Test Project proves successful?   If the results of the Test Project show the potential for the Upper Basin Water Utilization Project, the next step is a 4000 acre Pilot Project.   Federal funds have been committed to start preliminary planning, which got underway in early 2006.   The actual decision on whether a Pilot Project,  involving 3000 acres of new farm land, plus existing Test Project acreage will not be made until final results are received from NDSU on the Test Project.


For more information please contact Jeff Frith, Manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board.





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