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Growing Lakes, Growing Problems

September 19, 2011, 10:05 PM by Shawn Neisteadt

Growing Lakes, Growing Problems
KINGSBURY COUNTY, SD - As summer transitions to autumn, some around KELOLAND are still dealing with flooding that arose last winter and spring. That's certainly true in Kingsbury County, where several lakes are still flooded. Some there are now starting to worry if the lakes will ever go down, and if their land will ever return to normal.

You wouldn't know it by the looks of things, but just last year, it was a corn field. Today, it's an extension of Lake Thompson.

“This here was probably four feet higher than this this spring when we had all of our snow runoff coming into Lake Thompson here. So it goes back quite a ways," Paul Casper said.

Quite a ways might be an understatement. Casper's field is a mile away from the shorelines of Lake Thompson; at least it used to be. Now instead of growing corn or beans, aquatic vegetation has moved in.

"They talk about these wetlands and how they had to have been cattailed before. This was farmed and farmed for quite a few years. It's unbelievable how quickly those cattails can come in. From April 1 to now, you can see how tall the cattail has actually gotten," Casper said.

This land has been in the Casper family for at least seven decades, and it's never been underwater before, not even during the floods of 1997. And Casper isn't alone in the battle with nature. While he's lost 400 acres of land in the last two years, others are losing their homes.

"They were driving through the bean field here but the township actually made a road on top of some sod. At least these people can get down to their homes and kind of take care of it. It's really sad, if you don't take care of those homes, how quickly they start to fall apart," Casper said.

And he knows destruction of that property along Vantage Point could not only hurt those owners, but also the entire county that depends on the tax revenue.

"These are people's vacation homes, their families come up here. They spend money in our local economy. This is a huge impact what's happened here. People spent money to get their lot, they spent money to build their house and they're up here almost every weekend in the summer. And these folks aren't, and you can tell it's hurt us in the Lake Preston area," Casper said.

Lake Thompson, Preston, Henry and Whitewood are all part of a chain, and they're all above full. A summer of flooding and pounding waves has taken its toll on shorelines at each lake. Those who live around here fear there may be no end in sight.

"That's what's concerning.  This lake, when it floods, it's getting bigger every time. We're just hoping we don't have a Devil's Lake scenario here. I get a little nervous about that," Casper said.

Devil's Lake is in North Dakota and causing major problems. The city there is spending $250 million this year alone to raise levees and roads. At the same time, the lake continues to swell, just like it has for most of the last decade. It is now just feet from causing catastrophic damage. North Dakota officials are trying to figure out where to send the water. So are those around Lake Thompson.

"It's really interesting. In a dry year, nobody cares and nobody is really thinking about this. In the wet years, nobody wants water. Nobody wants this water," Casper said.

One plan would send the water south down the Vermillion River, but opponents say that just pushes the problem downstream. So until a solution is found, much of Kingsbury County will remain saturated.

"You're going to have idle acres here that is part of your farm and it's totally idle. It's nothing but cattails. Ducks and geese and muskrats love it, but it doesn't pay very well," Casper said.

That leaves this farmer hoping for drier weather and getting creative to make the best of a bad situation.

"We caught walleyes out here just six weeks ago. So I guess if we're not raising beans and corn, I guess we can raise walleyes. Can't sell them though," Casper said.

And unless something changes, this land will remain fit for fish instead of farming for years to come.

The Devils Lake City Council recently rejected a state proposal that would have given land to North Dakota to build an outlet from the lake. The state is now threatening to take the land through eminent domain.

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