Devils Lake, North Dakota: When a Confined Animal Feeding Operation Comes to Town
Over the last 20 years, Devils Lake has quadrupled in size.
The rising water has swallowed crop land, homes, parks and highways. An estimated 400 homes have been destroyed since water levels began to significantly rise in the 90s.
The natural and human caused flooding has forced area residents who once farmed the land to become resort and campground owners and embrace the changes in the lake. A once agricultural heavy area, Devils Lake has turned to tourism as its main source of revenue. The area is popular for fishing and camping. An estimated $89 million dollars from anglers is generated annually.
In June, 23-year-old farmer Taylor Aasmundstad and his business partner Daniel Julson filed for permits for a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) in Pelican Lake Township near the northern shores of Devils Lake. Any runoff from the operation could pollute the lake.
The land belongs to Taylor Aasmundstad’s father, former President of the North Dakota Farm Bureau, Eric Aasmundstad. Today, the proposed operation is partnered with Pipestone System, a swine management company that has proposed CAFOs in other locations around North Dakota, including a proposed farrowing operation in Buffalo, three times larger than the Devils Lake barn.
The operation, Grand Prairie Agriculture, LLP, is a multiplier. The operation would supply pigs to other farrowing operations to produce pigs that would then go off to a finishing barn. In its current stage the farm could produce up to 44,000 piglets a year.
The CAFO is .75 miles from the shores of Devils Lake. If Devils Lake is contaminated by this operation, culverts, spillways, canals and groundwater connects Devils Lake to Twin Lake, Spring Lake, Round Lake, Sheyenne River and Sweetwater Lake.
A fecal matter holding pit under the barn will house waste. When the holding pit is full, the waste slurry will be mixed with water and spread onto the fields and then pushed into the soil using trucks and tractors.
There are 28 fields that are designated dumpsite locations that will house waste from the operation. Several of these dumpsites are wetlands. Many of the dumpsite locations were completely under the lake in 2011. An engineer from Deehan, Grabs & Associates did a study of the 28 dumpsites and assessed that 12 out of the 28 were at moderate risk for runoff and groundwater seepage.
Currently, community members of Devils Lake are anxiously awaiting the North Dakota Health Department’s decision on the proposed CAFO permit.
If the CAFO is approved, there will be a 30 day period where people can submit written concerns to the Health Department, and that’s a critical time for opponents of this operation to show solidarity against this facility.
Rick Schwab’s Story:
Rick Schwab is a campground owner on Six Mile Bay on Devils Lake.
He rents out his 168 campsites every year from the first of May till the first of November. “It’s pretty much a fishing community. Most people come here to fish, and we’re a good location on the lake for that,” said Rick.
Rick’s renters come back to his site every year. “It’s almost like home to the renters."
Rick has had great success in his campground because of the location on the lake and spacious lots. “We don’t do any advertising, it’s all word of mouth. Ninety percent of the people that move into this campground are friends or relatives of people who are already here and they wait for an opening, sometimes for years to get in here.”
The fishing on Devils Lake is fruitful with catches of walleye, perch, northern pike and white bass every year.
Despite the popularity of Rick’s campground, the proposed hog operation has already jeopardized his business.
“I call it a hog factory. The proposed site is about three miles as the crow flies from here, straight to the northwest. Prevailing wind in North Dakota is from the northwest, so we’re right in line for any odor that comes off of the CAFO.”
Dedicated guests and renters have already expressed concerns over the proposed facility. “I’ve had several people who have flat out told me if the hog farm comes into existence, they will be moving out. They’re not going to wait to see what it smells like, they will be flat out moving out.”
Rick’s most immediate concern is the odor but he says there’s more to it than that. “The odor is going to be something that’s going to happen right now. The contamination of water is second. All their proposed waste sites in and around this area drain into the watersheds that goes into Devils Lake. It’s not if the waste gets in the lake, it’s when.”
The odor and contamination of the lake will hinder the popularity of Devils Lake.
“Devils Lake is a destination city. It’s a place that people bring their families to for a yearly vacation.” Tourism is the leading source of revenue for the town of Devils Lake. Tourism brings in approximately $89 million annually.
“The Lake may be the destination, but tourists start out in the city of Devils Lake. That’s where they buy their meals, their bait, their gas, their gear, their snacks and drinks and so when people stop coming to the lake, all that revenue in town is going to stop. It’s going to effect the city economically. If North Dakota is foolish enough to go along with this, it’s going to pay for it for generations to come.”
Rick is frustrated by the community’s lack of outright opposition to the CAFO. “People just don’t seem to be concerned around it. They’re thinking it might be the next generation’s problem. I think the community should be up in arms over this.”
Rick says the best way to help is to contact the Governor’s office and express concern over locating a hog factory right on the lake.
“When this lake is contaminated from hog waste, and it will be, they’re going to lose a natural resource that they can’t ever replace. Now is the time to put an end to this.”
The Yris’ Story:
Jim and Diane Yri farmed the Devils Lake area for 28 years before the lake rose and destroyed their cropland. They lost over 2,000 acres to the lake.
For the last 16 years, the Yris have owned and operated Westbay Resort. The resort is located right on Devils Lake.
The proposed CAFO is three miles northeast of the Yri’s Resort. “The site is surrounded by wetlands that will drain any waste into Devils Lake,” said Jim.
Jim worries about any accidental leakage and runoff polluting the lake. The proposed locations of the manure storage tank and dumpsites are surrounded by wetlands and water, meaning spillage is likely to occur in this area where flooding is so unpredictable and typical. Under the limited liability partnership (LLP) title, the CAFO owners will not be accountable for any spillage or cleanup; that burden will fall on the taxpayers in the area.
Additionally, the impact to local infrastructure and roads concerns Jim. “When you do the math of what an operation like the one proposed would need as far as feed coming in and the animals going out, it will be tremendous on the township road. I was the township supervisor for many years and I understand that there just isn’t the money to fix the roads for that kind of traffic.” The CAFO owners will not be accountable for the maintenance of the township roads or damages to the roads.
“The tax revenue in that area is not enough to cover maintenance,” said Jim.
According to Diane, the Devils Lake economy will be further impacted by this barn because of a decline in tourism.
“This will wreck Devils Lake,” said Diane. She says the high North Dakota winds will bring the odor straight to their campground, making it impossible for people to enjoy the lake. “What we provide here in North Dakota is clean air, flat and open spaces. We have the best fishery here, why would we even consider putting something here that could possibly ruin that,” said Diane.
Many downtown businesses are dependent on the tourism that the lake brings in. “A lot of these businesses -- Walmart, Leevers, Gerrells, Decorated Wearables -- their livelihood comes from what we do here at the resort. I don’t know if the city has really sat down and thought about this. People really need to be aware of this,” said Diane.
Diane is hopeful that the city won’t allow this to happen. “This area has seen a lot in the last 20 years that people are just now bouncing back,” said Diane.
Jim is not too encouraged by what he has seen in this process. “In North Dakota it’s business friendly. I had assumed that there were stipulations and controls over different aspects of operations like this. Currently that isn’t the case,” said Jim.
Jeff Kenner’s Story:
Jeff Kenner grew up on Six Miles Bay on Devils Lake. He has lived there all his life.
Today, Jeff is the distribution manager for the grocery store Leevers and owns a campground called Kenner’s Campground.
Jeff used to run his family’s farm but after losing over 500 acres to the lake in 2011, he focused on turning his land into a campground. “We’ve embraced the lake. There’s nothing you can do about the growth or the land loss, it’s just nature.”
Jeff has been running Kenner Campground for two years.
One of the proposed waste dumpsites from the CAFO is right across the road from Kenner Campground. Jeff’s lifelong neighbor is allowing his land to be a dumpsite despite Jeff asking him to reconsider. “The majority of the dumpsites slope downwards towards the lake. What happens when it rains and we have runoff?”
Jeff says some of the proposed northern dumpsites were completely under the lake in 2011. “I don’t know how those site could even be considered to be okay dumpsites.” Surveys concluded that 12 out of the 28 proposed dump sites are considered to have a moderate risk of runoff.
“I’m part of the Lake Region Concerned Citizens group, and we’re trying to stop the proposed Grand Prairie Agriculture, LLP hog operation in Pelican Township.”
Jeff fears this operation will ruin everything Devils Lake has to offer. “It’s way too close to the lake. It’s a closed basin lake. There’s a chance of the operation polluting the lake and hurting the whole surrounding community.”
Jeff says it is not only the pollution possibility that will damage the town. His concern is that the odor from the operation will drive away the town’s biggest avenue for income - tourism. “Who is going to want to rent a spot with the smell of hog waste? We’re very concerned about losing business. We’ve put a lot of money into this.”
Aside from business, there is a cemetery that is located a few hundred feet from the proposed hog operation. “I’m a member of St. Olaf Church, the church that that cemetery belongs to. It’s a sacred place and I think it’s a shame that people would even consider putting a hog operation there. It will desecrate the cemetery. I have relatives buried there. Who is going to want to be buried there in the future or even come pay respect to your loved ones when it’s going to smell like hog waste.”
Despite the locational issues of the proposed site, Jeff says many in the community are scared to speak out. “They know Eric Aasmundstad and his family and they’re scared to say anything. People are against this but they don't want to be on record saying they’re against it. It’s a small community. They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”
Jeff is concerned about the lack of leadership in the community. “I think it’s appalling that the leadership in this community is virtually silent. Our city leaders, Ramsey county, chamber of commerce, they seem to be scared to say anything.” At a Devils Lake City Commission meeting three months ago, the Mayor made a statement saying that this issue was out of his jurisdiction.
“Eventually everything flows into the lake. If it doesn’t, it will runoff into some slew and then eventually contaminate Devils Lake.”
Devils Lake, North Dakota
The site of the proposed Confined Animal Feeding Operation. The area is notorious for flooding, making it a bizarre location for a 44,000 piglet gestation barn. It would only be a matter of time until the runoff from the operation polluted the surrounding bodies of water.