A NEWSLETTER FROM THE STATE ENGINEER & WATER COMMISSION
I began serving North Dakota as the Interim State Engineer on April 1, 2020, after being appointed to the position by Governor Burgum in February.
My career with the State Water Commission (SWC) started in 1991 and I have had the privilege to work in nearly every Division within the agency. Most recently, I served as the Assistant State Engineer for the past three years. In 2015, I was named as Director of the Regulatory Division, after being employed as the Chief of the Regulatory Section since 2004. The Regulatory Division is responsible for reviewing permit applications for drains, dikes, dams, and sovereign lands; providing technical assistance to water resource district boards; administering North Dakota’s Dam Safety Program; guiding the Silver Jacket Project; assisting communities in practicing floodplain management through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP); and administering FEMA’s Risk MAP program.
Early in my career with the agency, I worked as a hydrologist in the Water Appropriations Division. During this seven-year tenure, I monitored the agency’s comprehensive water use database, assisted with water permitting issues, and helped to develop technologies for tracking water resources. I was also fortunate to have gained vital knowledge as a water resource engineer with the Water Development Division’s Investigations Section.
I have been with the SWC most of my professional career and am astounded by the agency’s work ethic and integrity, and want to express gratitude for the experiences I’ve gained by serving North Dakota in numerous facets. I have personally witnessed the agency’s progression in various aspects and have seen first-hand the innovative and remarkable new technologies the SWC has developed.
I became Interim State Engineer in extremely unprecedented times due to the COVID-19 pandemic. State and federal agencies, communities, corporations, organizations, and even entities on a global level were faced with compelling new challenges during these enduring circumstances. Fortunately, the SWC was able to transition with an exceptionally seamless approach, utilizing the outstanding guidance and leadership of fellow directors and invaluable staff members that were ready to follow a new path, while still maintaining exceptional service to the citizens of North Dakota. Telecommuting became significant in redefining the agency’s workforce. Tele-work was made possible by the outstanding IT staff at the Water Commission. Their immense knowledge and pivotal direction exceedingly helped with the transition into this so-called new normal.
Even during these unparalleled times, the Water Commission strives to improve the quality of life and strengthen the economy of North Dakota by managing the water resources of the state for the benefit of its people. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve as the Interim State Engineer.
I have spent nearly my whole life growing up and raising a family in southwestern North Dakota. When I graduated from Dickinson High School, I was looking forward to leaving North Dakota to find a “better” place to pursue my life goals and dreams. I attended college at North Dakota State University and Dickinson State University, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. Still not knowing what I wanted to do for a career, I joined the United States Army and served for nearly four years. I spent two years at Fort Lewis, Washington and the last of my enlistment serving in Germany.
I learned some important life lessons serving in the Army. People are capable of so much more than they ever believed possible and that North Dakota work ethic is real. I would often go into my office or complete a task early Friday evening or during the weekends. People would ask me why I was working late or on the weekend? The answer was simple, “I had work that I needed to complete.” Often, fellow soldiers would follow-up with asking me where I was from. After I told them I was from North Dakota, I would often hear, “I have heard about the upper Midwest work ethic.”
Water is something that a lot of us take for granted. I have been serving on the board of directors of Southwest Water Authority since 2010, but I feel my experience in working with water goes back much further. My grandfather, Joseph Schneider, served as a County, District, and State Director of Farmers Home Administration for the State of North Dakota. In the late 1980s, North Dakota was in a prolonged drought, and I remember several discussions with my grandfather about getting a regional water system started for the southwest portion of the state. The water quality of Patterson Lake was so poor that the city of Dickinson’s better option was to treat wastewater for consumer use! My grandfather, and many other people in southwest North Dakota were instrumental in getting the Southwest Pipeline Project going. In the mid 1980s, southwest North Dakota’s first oil boom went bust. And leadership at the regional and state level allowed this project to become a reality. Since the beginning, my grandfather served as a Director for Southwest Water Authority for many years.
In the past, residents received water from, primarily, local water treatment plants. With the population growth over the last twenty-plus years and the higher cost of construction, replacing old water treatment plants with newer ones was very expensive. Creating regional water systems has helped cut costs and allowed these water systems to serve more people, but we are not done. There are a lot of people that still need quality water, and there are many who need protection during flood events.
I have been a member of the Water Commission for almost one year and have learned a lot. I have greatly enjoyed meeting and talking with a lot of people throughout the state. Getting to know the other commission members and leadership from all parts of North Dakota has me feeling very hopeful during these trying times.
We don’t always agree on everything, but that is what makes a good debate. It’s important to listen to all views. We will have some tough decisions coming up with what projects we will be able to fund, and those we will not. These are trying times for the state, but we will get through this together. After all, we are North Dakotans. I look forward to visiting with more of you in the coming future.
SWC Utilizes Drone Technology to Monitor Spring Conditions
In Spring 2020, two of the Water Commission’s (SWC) drone pilots, Dan McDonald and Damon Grabow, utilized aerial imagery and video to monitor various flooding events in several locations in the state. Flights were increased after Governor Burgum declared a statewide flood emergency with Executive Order 2020-30. The order issued on April 24, 2020, stated that overland and riverine flooding had resulted in significant damage in central and eastern North Dakota.
Members of the SWC drone team captured images of peak flows on the Wild Rice, Sheyenne, and Maple Rivers. By conducting drone flights during peak flows, the Water Commission was able to collect visual data that correlated to flows and stages of the rivers. These flights created an invaluable data set of observation footage that can be easily accessed for modeling purposes and also utilized for historic reference. Integration of small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) technology provided the agency with data collection and views that were much more difficult and cost prohibitive to capture in the past.
The majority of flights this spring, aimed to collect environmental data for future LiDAR collects. LiDAR, (light detection and ranging), refers to a remote sensing method used to examine the surface of the earth. The Water Commission has developed specialized map services that are geared towards the dissemination of large datasets, particularly LiDAR elevation data collects. The spring drone flights were flown to ~400 feet with a 360-degree panoramic video of the surrounding landscape with elevations of each flight varing due to local conditions.
LiDAR data needs to be collected during a unique time of the year. Ideal conditions allow the least amount of beam blockage from aircraft to ground. Drone flights monitor the existence of snow, the level of standing water, and the budding stages of trees. All of these elements can inhibit LiDAR collection.
Additional drone flights were conducted for the SWC’s survey crew, the Regulatory Division, and for various other public information purposes. The survey crew used the innovative drone technology to collect visual data during a survey effort at the outlet for Twin Lakes, and prairie pothole lake system in LaMoure County, about two miles northeast of the City of LaMoure. Flight data provided up-to-date imagery of current conditions, which complimented elevation survey data.
Future usage of the Water Commission’s drone program continues to develop and expand. The agency is supporting implementation of this revoluntionary initiative by participating in educational opportunities with North Dakota’s statewide UAS network and researching advancement potential with the state’s Department of Transportation and their Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program.
Additionally, the Dam Safety Section is in the process of licensing one of its staff members to be certified to conduct drone flights. The ability to utilize drones in the field of dam safety will provide crucial data and help monitor safety and integrity of dam structures. This data will also help to ensure public safety and generate awareness.
As the Water Commission’s drone program continues to broaden and evolve, the agency’s capabilities and datasets will expand and better serve the needs of the state.
For more information regarding the agency’s MapServices and LiDAR information, please go to
Kelvin Kunz has been an invaluable employee for over 40 years with the Water Commission. He began his career with the agency in 1979 as a Rig Hand and later excelled as an Engineering Technician with the Water Appropriations Division.
For over 40 years and well over a million miles, Kelvin has traveled between Marmarth and Fairmount and Walhalla and Fortuna. Kelvin's work has included test drilling, installation and maintenance of observation wells, and collection of water resource data using a myriad of methods and technologies. Thank you Kelvin for the exceptional years of service to North Dakota.
On behalf of the Water Commission, we would like to thank Jim MacArthur for his admirable years of service to the people of North Dakota. Jim was an exceptional, successful, and dedicated staff member at the Water Commission for over thirty-nine years. He worked as a Water Resource Senior Manager in the Water Appropriations Division.
Throughout his career with the agency, Jim has established an outstanding rapport with staff and the public, demonstrated commitment and integrity, and exhibited tireless efforts in all of his job responsibilities.
We congratulate Jim on his retirement and wish him health and happiness in the future!
NFIP Generates Notable Outreach
North Dakota has a long history of flood-related challenges, and it has become even more common over the last two decades. One way to reduce the potential negative impacts of flooding is to have effective federal, state and community floodplain management programs in place.
The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) aims to do just that. The NFIP, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was created to help provide a means for property owners in participating communities to financially protect themselves from negative impacts related to flooding. In exchange, those participating communities agree to adopt and enforce ordinances that meet or exceed FEMA and state requirements to reduce the risk of flooding.
In 2019, North Dakota faced unusual fall flooding due to an early October blizzard and a previous abundance of precipitation. Many rivers in the state were swelling at historic levels for this time of year and posed significant risk to communities, agriculture, and infrastructure. With this unique situation, Governor Burgum signed an executive order at the end of October declaring a statewide flood emergency.
After the declaration, the Water Commission made it a top priority to provide additional information regarding enhancing community flood resiliency through participation in the NFIP to help generate awareness in an effort to share in response, resources, and recovery topics. In January 2020, through collaboration with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services (NDDES), a pre-planning effort resulted in a desire to develop a flood insurance public awareness campaign that would help raise flood risk awareness, increase NFIP participation, and promote flood insurance as a way to mitigate the financial burden of flooding and create a more resilient community.
FEMA also took an active role in the outreach campaign and provided $30,000 in grant funding along with NDDES contributing a 25% match. Interviews with Governor Burgum and property owners were completed, and educational public service announcements containing information regarding the potential for spring flooding, along with outlining several resources available to communities, aired across North Dakota on various media outlets and social media platforms in January and February. In addition, Governor Burgum proclaimed the week of January 27, 2020, as Flood Awareness Week; a flood insurance fact sheet was created by the Water Commission; public meetings were held in Fargo, Grand Forks, and Jamestown; and a flood insurance agent training was held in-person and via webinar.
Overall, the campaign was a great success and the positive outreach generated an increase (based on 5-year average) in NFIP policies of 30%. As of March 2020, 13,586 NFIP policies were in-force, providing nearly $4 billion in coverage. Currently in North Dakota, 334 communities made up of counties, cities, townships, and tribes are participating in the NFIP.
Where it can rain, it can flood. Protect the life you’ve built, buy flood insurance.
In March, Sara Van Ningen joined the Water Commission as an Engineer Technician in the Dam Safety Section within the Regulatory Division.
She is currently studying to acquire her drone certification and is looking forward to becoming a drone pilot. Sara feels that a drone would be highly beneficial with inspections. The goal is to take photos and collect footage of the dams in North Dakota utilizing photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs, and potentially create a model to help identify subtle or minuet changes on a dam or other structures.
Sara earned a Bachelor’s degree in Geology from North Dakota State University, and in December, she will receive her Master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems and Technologies from the University of Southern California. In 2019, Sara completed an internship with the City of Bismarck, and prior to that, she worked at the Science Museum of Minnesota and gained experience in archaeology, paleontology, and geology.
Sara grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. She is the oldest of five children and often visits her family including an eclectic mix of pets - a horse named Jess, a dog they call Lady, and a female chinchilla referred to as Clyde. Sara also enjoys spending time with her husband Alex, camping, hiking, playing video games, and reading.
By the Numbers – Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Program
The Drought Disaster Livestock Water Supply Assistance Program (Program), administered by the State Water Commission (SWC), is designed to assist livestock producers by providing cost-share to establish long-term, drought resistant water supplies in impacted areas. The program may be activated during times of severe drought.
The program was most recently active from June 2017 through December 2019 as areas of the state were classified as being in a severe drought.
2017 Program Highlights:
- The Program was activated in June 2017, and deactivated in December 2019.
- During the 2017 Program activation, 45 of 53 ND counties were served by the Program.
- Over 500 water supply projects were completed by 361 agricultural producers.
- Producers spent more than $4 million on long-term, drought resilient livestock water supply projects.
- Over $1.5 million in Water Commission cost-share funding was provided to producers for their projects.
Though the 2017 Program activation has expired, ongoing drought conditions during the summer of 2020 have prompted discussion about the potential for reactivation should conditions continue to deteriorate.
Background Photo Caption: A rural water connection, tank and associated works were installed at this site near Linton, ND.
Project Funding Update
At the Water Commission meeting held on June 9, 2020, Commissioners deferred acting on any new cost-share requests and a motion was carried to further discuss funding at an upcoming meeting to be held July 16. The motion states, that Commission members do not approve the June 2020 cost-share requests with funds from the current biennium revenue, and to closely monitor the budget and revenue, and to reconvene in July to consider funding options after we have additional Resources Trust Fund (RTF) revenue information to consider.
Funding was however authorized for the projects listed below.
United States Geological Survey Cooperative Monitoring Agreement
Devils Lake Levee (Escrow Account Transfer)
Bottineau County WRD, Westhope Dam Rehabilitation
Commissioner-Hosted Basin Meetings to Be Held Virtually
This biennium, due to COVID-19 related concerns, the Commissioner-hosted meetings will be provided virtually to discuss ongoing Water Commission efforts, and water management and development issues in the state’s eight major drainage basins. The meetings will be held over the course of the last two weeks in July.
The Water Commission has designed the virtual meeting format to ensure that project sponsors are afforded the same opportunity to participate in the basin meetings as they would at an in-person meeting.
If you would like to provide a presentation at one of the basin meetings, please send an email to email@example.com at least two days prior to the scheduled meeting to alert meeting organizers ahead of time. Include your name, organization, project or issue to be presented, the meeting you plan to attend, and a copy of any handouts or presentation materials. When it is your turn to present, Commission staff will turn controls over to your computer so you or a representative can present remotely from a location of your choosing. Also note, in addition to project-related presentations, time will be available for general questions and answers.
If you have any questions about the 2020 Commissioner-hosted meetings, please contact our Planning and Education Division at 701-328-2782, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please click on the links below for meeting instructions and access information.