McFeely: Devils Lake guide wages lonely fight to keep water level high
DEVILS LAKE, N.D. — Jay Breckheimer seems to be a lonely voice in the fight over Devils Lake's water.
The fishing guide is an outspoken advocate for keeping the lake as high as possible, contradicting most who speak out on the issue. Farmers and many in positions of authority in the North Dakota lakes region want the flooded Devils Lake lowered to uncover agricultural land.
"The landowners have spoken loud and clear and have stood up for their livelihoods and way of life. Who can blame them?" said Breckheimer, who works with Bry's Guide Service. "I am just standing up for my livelihood and way of life. Who can blame me?"
In an email sent to me and a follow-up phone conversation, Breckheimer said he feels the need to speak in favor of the fishing and tourism industry around the Devils Lake area because nobody else will. The Pekin resident believes even those who might favor keeping lake levels higher are afraid to speak up for fear of retaliation in an area in which farmers and the ag industry wields great power.
The deck, he said, is stacked against fishing and tourism even though they bring money to Devils Lake. Walleyes and jumbo perch are treasured species in the lake, and trophy northern pike also draw anglers. Fishing draws thousands of anglers, and their wallets, mostly from Upper Midwest states.
"I truly believe you will never get honest answers from a water board, county commission board or chamber of commerce board made up primarily of people who stand to gain personally from low lake levels," Breckheimer said. "Where are the people who benefit from the tourism on these boards? Not there."
At issue is whether the state should operate two pumps it installed in 2005 and 2011 to remove water from Devils Lake, which rose 34 vertical feet beginning in 1993 and flooded about 150,000 acres of farmland. At its peak, the lake reached about 1,454 feet above mean sea level. As of this writing, pumping and evaporation had lowered it to 1,449 feet.
The Devils Lake Outlet Management Advisory Committee, charged with making a recommendation to the state water commission on whether the pumps should be turned on this year, met earlier this month in Carrington to discuss the issue. Farmers who spoke at the meeting, with support of some on the committee, said they were promised the pumps would operate until the lake hit 1,446 feet.
Breckheimer and others with fishing interests urged the committee to recommend leaving the pumps off in order to maintain higher lake levels that they say will ensure better fishing for a longer period. They said lowering the lake to 1,446 feet would cut off Stump Lake from Devils Lake, devastating that fishery, and would lead to shallower lakes north of Devils Lake dying out.
The committee delayed making a recommendation until Devils Lake hit 1,448 feet, saying it wanted time to gather more information on things like the economic impacts of farming and fishing, as well as the effect of lower lake levels on fish populations.
Breckheimer is right in this regard: Many committee members at the meeting sided with farmers, even before they'd been given information other members sought. State Sen. Dave Oehlke, who represents the Devils Lake region, clearly stated he will vote to lower the lake — even though the meeting was supposed to be informational.
North Dakota Game and Fish director Terry Steinwand, too, appears clearly on the side of pumping down the lake to 1,446 feet. In an interview on the "McFeely Mess" podcast, said he believes lowering the lake would not have a major impact on Devils Lake's treasured walleyes. So if the committee intends to ask Steinwand his opinion on a lower lake, that question seems already answered.
Breckheimer disputes Steinwand.
"His opinion is that if the lake is lowered to 1,446 feet it won't have a negative impact on the fishery. I beg to differ," Breckheimer said. "I am on the lake system 200 days a year. I see the negative impact already happening. I don't believe Game and Fish has collected any data on sheer numbers of fishermen visiting the Devils Lake region in recent years.
"Since the shutdown of walleye fishing on major destinations in Minnesota like Lake Mille Lacs, I have witnessed a major spike in people visiting the Devils Lake basin. I have personally taken hundreds of people fishing on Devils Lake that say they are now coming here because of the lack of fishing opportunity in Minnesota that has come about the last three years. Has Game and Fish done actual head counts at the landings recently?"
Steinwand said the walleye population in Devils Lake remains robust, but Breckheimer said his experience is that the average size of the fish is shrinking with additional pressure. The guide believes the situation will worsen as the lake drops.
"I am saying from experience that the number of visitors has at least doubled in the last three years. That is a great economic advantage for the area," Breckheimer said. "But is the fishery going to be able to sustain if it loses a third or half of its fishable water while the number of visitors continues to climb?"
In the end, the argument comes down to money. Who will benefit the most financially from a certain water level? Agriculture supporters cite studies from North Dakota State University's Agribusiness and Applied Economics Department saying flooding has cost farmers and associated businesses more than $1 billion in direct and indirect losses since 2011. Annual losses are estimated to be about $130 million, including direct farm income, personal income, retail trade and other losses.
NDSU hasn't done any similar studies on the economic impact of tourism to the region, but professor Dean Bangsund said the research group has talked with Suzie Kenner, Devils Lake's tourism director, about a possible study.
At the Carrington meeting, Tolna City Council member Bret Poehls presented figures from the state tourism department and Game and Fish showing the economic impact of fishing on the region. Poehls' numbers said Nelson, Benson and Ramsey counties had $59.64 million of economic activity from fishing in 2015, accounting for nearly 900 jobs.
"This doesn't include money spent from people traveling less than 50 miles, because it's a tourism study," Poehls said.
He cited Game and Fish statistics saying resident anglers spend $277 a day in the summer and $117 a day in the winter. Nonresident fishermen spend $170 a day summer or winter.
"I have spoken to landowners around the system. Many say the don't want the pumps to run anymore," Breckheimer said. "They have adjusted their incomes to draw from tourism to make up for the acres lost to water. Some say the amount of time, money and effort it will take to raise a crop on the land that is reclaimed as the lake goes down isn't worth it."
Breckheimer is trying to make the argument that property taxes from cabins, homes and resorts on the lake offset any property tax loss from ag land being underwater. He said if the lake drops too far, it will be a "tourism economic Armageddon."
"The resorts dry up, the many restaurants and hotels become empty, stores can't keep their doors open, people move out of the communities surrounding the lake system because now they can't make a living for their families," Breckheimer said. "The counties lose $1,000 to $5,000 per lake lot in tax revenue. This is the possible economic disaster I am talking about."
Breckheimer said he's received many nasty emails and messages because of his strong support of keeping Devils Lake at a higher level. He doesn't care.
"Somebody has to say something," Breckheimer said. "I'm the one willing to say what many are thinking."