BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Longtime businessman Joe Belford remembers when water levels in Devils Lake were so low that he and other officials in the early 1990s started the Lake Preservation Coalition hoping to protect the North Dakota fishery — one of the prime walleye lakes in the region, if not the country.
And he remembers the relief he felt when, in 1993, heavy rains started pelting the basin.
Problem is, they never stopped, and Belford's battle with water switched from worrying about levels being too low to the lake swelling out of control.
"We must have done too good of a job," Belford joked. "Our prayers were answered. We're never going to ask again."
Belford, 74, who served nearly a quarter century on the Ramsey County Commission and became the face of the prolonged Devils Lake flood disaster, is leaving government, but not the fight to bring normalcy to a region that has suffered through two decades of water woes.
Belford, who recently lost a re-election bid, said he will continue working with the State Water Commission on Devils Lake issues, building on successes that have brought a sense of optimism to the basin.
Devils Lake has risen more than 30 feet since 1993 and reached a record level in the summer of 2011. The spreading lake has swallowed up 170,000 acres of crop and pasture land — more than 265 square miles.
Since 1995, Belford has contracted with the Water Commission to work as an advocate for flood-relief projects and help gain acceptance for them in downstream areas, where many property owners have spoken against flood diversion outlets on the west and east sides of the lake that pump floodwaters into the Sheyenne River. Valley City has since received state help for $21 million in improvements to its water treatment plant to deal with the saltier Devils Lake water — the upgraded plant was dedicated in August — and downstream opposition has eased, Belford said.
"As a group, we have accomplished a lot with the downstream folks, keeping them informed and educated," Belford said of himself and many others who have worked on Devils Lake issues. "Like one guy (downstream) says, 'I can't go against you anymore. You're one of my good friends.' So there's some humor."
Downstream opposition has ebbed in large part because of recent drier weather and because of general acceptance that little that can be done to stop Devils Lake floodwaters from entering the Sheyenne, said Richard Betting, of Valley City, a spokesman for People to Save the Sheyenne. The group unsuccessfully opposed construction of the outlets.
The lake continues to be a threat to downstream areas, Betting said, but he acknowledged that "there hasn't been much to catch people's attention."
"If the lake continues to drop, it probably won't get a lot of attention until it rises again," he said.
Many other strides have been made in the battle against the rising lake, as more than $1 billion has poured into the area from federal, state and local agencies through the years. The new east-end outlet came online in June, complementing the west-end outlet that has been operating since August 2005. The outlets and evaporation took about 3 feet of water off the bloated lake this year.
A $155 million project to raise the levee that protects the city of Devils Lake is nearing completion, and the federal government announced in August that it was putting a project to raise flood-prone railroad tracks in the Devils Lake region on the fast track. The $100 million project will raise about 15 miles of track owned by BNSF Railway but also used by Amtrak passenger trains that travel between Chicago and the Pacific Northwest.
More than $500 million worth of construction to raise major roads in the lake region to a safe elevation is wrapping up. Final paving on Highway 57-20, a major artery leading south from the city across the lake, is to be bid this winter and completed in the spring, according to the state Transportation Department.
"Most of our roads, a good majority, are at that ultimate elevation," said Wayde Swenson, the department's district engineer in Devils Lake. "We consider, yeah, it's kind of getting wrapped up around here."
The federal Agriculture Department's Natural Resources Conservation Service announced last spring it was making $7 million available to compensate flooded landowners in the Upper Midwest through short-term conservation leases. The program could help farmers who hope to bring flooded land back into production when the lake level goes down, according to Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
Water is receding on about 30,000 acres in the northern part of the Devils Lake basin that have been submerged for years, Towner County Commissioner Ken Teubner said.
"The prospects look a little better," he said. "It's going in the right direction anyway. A lot depends on what happens with the weather. People think it's a lot better, but it's always right on the edge of being back where it was."
That's why Belford plans to retain his contracted position with the Water Commission, for which he is paid $36,000 plus expenses, and he plans to again be roaming the halls of the Capitol in Bismarck when the 2013 Legislature convenes early next year, lobbying for more money for water projects.
He also will continue to serve on the Red River Basin Commission, a group of officials from North Dakota, Minnesota and the Canadian province of Manitoba who work on water issues in the basin that is on both sides of the international border. Devils Lake water eventually ends up in the Red River through the Sheyenne River, which drains into the Red.
"There's always been something to do since this thing started," Belford said of the 20-year wet cycle. "But there's a good feeling around Devils Lake. Maybe we're going to finally be close to the end."
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