A Letter From The Interim State Engineer
It was my privilege to provide the State of Water on December 4, 2020, at the 57th Annual Joint North Dakota Water Convention and Irrigation Workshop. The Water Convention was held virtually and utilized online platforms to ensure public safety and follow guidelines in response to COVID-19. Even though the meetings and sessions were conducted in a different format than previous years, the information and presentations were still extremely beneficial and insightful.
During the virtual State of Water presentation, I discussed various accomplishments and initiatives of the State Water Commission (SWC) and Office of the State Engineer (OSE). I reviewed operations and budget, COVID-19 impacts, water management efforts, regulatory policy changes, water development updates, future project planning, and technology innovations.
Throughout 2020, repercussions from the COVD-19 pandemic were seen globally and played a significant role in the agency’s staffing and operations. By mid-March, most of the SWC and OSE staff transitioned to telework or work-from-home schedules to ensure public health and safety. Our in-house IT staff’s response has been outstanding and continues to play a vital role in staff productivity while working remotely. The agency’s robust database systems, including finance, cost-share, project planning, and permits also contributed to a seamless transition, resulting in minimal impact on our day-to-day operations.
Challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a substantial impact on revenues flowing into the Resources Trust Fund (RTF). The RTF received more than $300 million for water development during the 2017-2019 biennium. However, in early 2020, a steep decline in oil prices created a period of extreme budget uncertainty which led to Water Commission cost-share considerations to be put on hold from May through September. At the October Commission meeting, commissioners resumed approving cost-share applications. As of December 2020, the RTF shortfall is projected to be approximately $145 million.
Despite budget challenges, the agency has seen exceptional growth in our technological services. Our growing PRESENS (Pushing REmote SENsors) network provides real-time environmental data collection and was originally introduced in 2017. This year the agency expanded the PRESENS initiative to a fully integrated solution for hydrologic data collection. We have increased deployment – with over 200 units being installed at various locations across the state. New sensors have also been added and additional testing has been conducted by staff to gain a more accurate picture of North Dakota’s unique hydrology. The PRESENS network will also streamline staff’s ability to conduct streamflow measurements and collect data at ground water and surface water monitoring locations.
The North Dakota Risk Assessment MapService (NDRAM) platform has also seen significant upgrades to functionality in 2020. Users can now access a weather tab that displays current warnings, observed river stages, significant river flood outlooks, and snow water equivalent data. Along with the added features, a NDRAM tutorial video has been produced to assist users. The nearly ten-minute video, available via the SWC’s YouTube channel, provides a step-by-step guide on how to navigate NDRAM.
Another innovative tool introduced in 2020 is the Williston Radar. This tool located in Northwest North Dakota at the Williston Basin International Airport (XWA) can identify rain, hail, and snow. Beyond the usual capabilities of weather radars, the Williston County radar has dual-polarization technology, which provides better estimates of rainfall and the ability to identify hail falling from thunderstorms. Staff from the Water Commission’s Atmospheric Resource Division have aided Williams County through the process of getting the new radar in place, specifically regarding Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licensing and permitting requirements. Radar data is sent to the Water Commission in real-time and displayed on our website, along with radars operated by the Atmospheric Resources Division in Bowman and Stanley, making the agency a one-stop shop for weather radar data in western North Dakota.
These are just a few of the innovative technology platforms the agency developed and utilizes to help improve how we collect, understand, and disseminate datasets.
It is my great honor to be involved in these instrumental projects that serve the state of North Dakota and to have the opportunity to work with such an exceptional staff. The Water Commission and Team ND truly empower people, improve lives, and inspire success.
As we approach the end of a very trying year, I thought it was important to reflect back at some of the activities, projects, and challenges that the State Water Commission has dealt with during the 2019-2021 biennium, and specifically 2020.
We are all very much aware of the shortfall of funds deposited into the Resource Trust Fund (RTF) due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting reduction of oil extraction tax which funds the RTF. Currently, 20.5% of the extraction tax goes into the RTF to be used for water projects of all types. The original forecast for the Resource Trust Fund was $433 million, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) revised that to $293 million in September, and the revised forecast in the Governor’s Executive Budget on December 3, 2020, was $288 million, or a reduction of $145 million from the original forecast, or about a 33% reduction.
With the downturn in the RTF, we were in a dilemma as we had projects that needed funding, but the actual funds available were insufficient to approve the projects as part of the Water Commission’s Cost-share Program. To deal with the shortfall, letters were sent to project managers asking if they could/would de-obligate some of the funds that may not be needed during this biennium. In the spirit of cooperation, several projects, large and small, agreed to deobligate funds. Even with this being done, it was decided that Commissioners could not approve projects for the months of June and August due to a lack of available funding. This was extremely hard to do, as it has always been the mission of the State Water Commission to get projects approved and under construction in a timely manner. As oil production increased, the RTF began receiving funds closer to what was budgeted when the budget was originally created. With that in mind, we were able to approve projects in October and December 2020.
This positive turn-around brightened everyone’s spirits, in that we were able to get projects approved. To recap, from July 2019 to April 2020, $183 million in cost-share funding was approved. In June and August 2020, no cost-share requests were approved. In October 2020, $84.7 million in cost-share was approved, and in December 2020, $14.7 million was approved. After considering other State Engineer approvals, and voluntary deobligations of about $37 million from project sponsors, about $244 million in current biennium Water Commission funding remains committed to projects across the state. The bottom line is, the Water Commission was able to provide funding to a lot of projects that at one point did not appear possible. It should be noted that the reason for projects not being funded in June and August 2020 was because it was apparent that we could deficit spend. In addition, following the guidance of the Water Topics Overview Committee, only critical projects were to be considered for funding, and to not deficit spend. It should also be noted that there will be funds available the remainder of this biennium to meet most legislative intent. Based on current projections, if all the intent were met this biennium, there would be a projected ending balance in the RTF of approximately -$3 million. This is not too bad, as the situation looked a lot worse a few months ago.
Looking forward to the 2021-2023 biennium with only $254.8 million being projected into the RTF from the extraction tax, it would seem that it could be a biennium that sees fewer projects. This is not necessarily the case. There is legislation being proposed that would incorporate the use of bonding to fund projects that require greater financial needs and could potentially eat up more of the funds from the RTF. By utilizing bonding for the major high-dollar projects, the funds in the RTF could then be used for smaller projects, which would benefit the entire state. Hopefully, this gains acceptance during the Legislative Assembly.
On behalf of the State Water Commissioners, BE SAFE, BE HEALTHY, AND HAPPY NEW YEAR.
State Engineer’s Professionalism Award
Dan McDonald, Survey Crew Chief, was honored with the 2020 North Dakota State Engineer’s Professionalism Award. Dan is a member of the Investigations Section in the Water Development Division. He serves as the Survey Crew Chief, and is one of four drone pilots within the agency. Dan’s influential contributions, positive attitude, and tireless efforts are demonstrated on a daily basis at the Water Commission.
Dan has been instrumental in the agency’s Drone or Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) Program. Since earning his Remote Pilot Certification from the Federal Aviation Administration in February 2020, Dan has refined and expanded the SWC drone program and has flown more flights than any other pilot in the agency. Dan has also been a key contributor to the coordination of the Water Commission’s collection of over $7M of LiDAR data in the eastern part of the state. Dan’s survey experience and knowledge has been an irreplaceable resource. He has advanced the agency’s understanding of ground conditions, and now he has expanded his capabilities to the air.
Dan has demonstrated dedication, professionalism, and an outstanding work ethic throughout his twelve years of service and continues to provide invaluable support to the agency.
Water Wheel Award
Chris Bader, Data and Technology Administrator at the Water Commission, was the proud recipient of a 2020 North Dakota Water Wheel Award at the 57th Annual Joint North Dakota Water Convention and Irrigation Workshop. The North Dakota Water Wheel is awarded in recognition of distinct leadership and perseverance in motivating development of the state’s water resources - thereby fostering a better quality of life for the citizens of North Dakota and future generations.
Chris has provided exceptional leadership, tremendous commitment, and immense expertise in his role as team lead to the Data and Technology Services staff at the Water Commission. His forward-focused thinking and critical problem-solving skills have been essential to the agency’s transition to telework in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Chris was able to keep the agency’s infrastructure operating smoothly and seamlessly while continuing to provide service and support that is vital to the agency’s day-to-day success.
Chris has demonstrated prudent guidance, unmatched know-how, and selfless commitment to the Water Commission throughout his 35 years of service and strives to continue providing state-of-the-art technology and advanced IT methodologies and support to the agency.
Commendations For Outstanding Performance
Each year, the Water Commission hands out Commendations for Outstanding Performance to employees who have performed at an exceptionally high level, or who have done exceptional work on a project or program. Nominations are made by Division Directors, and final determinations are made by the State Engineer. Recipients of Commendations for Outstanding Performance Awards for 2020 are:
Alexis Faber, Andrew Nygren, Duane Pool, Heide Delorme, Jesse Kist, John Brintnell, Kelsey Huber, Laura Horner, Lori Noack, Sarah Felchle, Sheila Fryer, and Travis Stramer.
2021 Water Development Plan & New Dashboard
The Water Commission is pleased to present the 2021 North Dakota Water Development Plan.
Those involved in water project development know that existing projects evolve, and new projects are continuously being considered by local sponsors. For that reason, it is necessary for the state to assemble updated water project information on a biennial basis, to coincide with the state’s biennial budget cycle. This information then provides our elected officials and the agency with the most up-to-date project information to plan for and support our state’s water development priorities.
The 2021 Water Development Plan (WDP) provides a complete picture of North Dakota’s water development needs for the 2021-2023 biennium and beyond. With a renewed focus on long-term funding sustainability, the 2021 Plan provides five recommendations for water development in the future. Specifically, the first recommendation addresses the need for more reliable, cost-effective sources of revenue, with an emphasis on bonding. It is expected that the data provided in the 2021 WDP will be helpful in making the case for identifying and supporting alternative methods of funding water projects.
In addition to the WDP, a dashboard has been created. The purpose of the dashboard is to make the 2021 Water Development Plan a “living” document, as it will be updated regularly to reflect project changes, committed funds, and fluid budget scenarios. The dashboard provides a user-friendly resource by incorporating QR Codes in the WDP that can be scanned via mobile device. The dashboard and the Water Development Plan can be viewed on the Water Commission’s website.
Rubina joined the Water Commission staff in October 2020 as a Hydrologist in the Water Appropriations Division.
Rubina obtained her Master’s Degree from the University of Karachi, Pakistan, and furthered her education by earning a PhD in Geology from the University of Kansas. She was previously employed as a Director with the Geological Survey of Pakistan.
Rubina enjoys spending time with her children, Noya and Taimoor, and has been married to her husband, Tariq Jaffery, for seventeen years. She enjoys taking on new challenges and appreciates life’s adventures. Rubina is looking forward to learning more about the agency and is eager to apply her previous work experience and knowledge in her new career.
In October 2020, Ryan Wolbert started his employment with the Water Commission in the Water Appropriations Division as a Hydrologist.
Ryan grew up in Shippenville, Pennsylvania. He earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Geology from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, and received another Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental Geoscience, also from Clarion. Ryan later attended Ohio University where he received his Master’s Degree in Geology.
Most recently, Ryan was employed at Ohio University as a Head Teaching Assistant in the geological sciences department where he helped teach classes, instruct labs, and mentor his fellow peers and students. He enjoys challenges, crafting new ideas, building projects, and spending time with his dog, Gunner. Ryan is excited to be a member of the Water Commission staff and Team ND.
NDRAM Offers Enhanced Features & Tutorial Video
The Water Commission recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of the North Dakota Risk Assessment MapService (NDRAM). This state-of-the-art platform designed by Water Commission staff has proven to be an incredible asset that provides flood risk information to the entire state.
NDRAM allows users to visually display current flood risks, both non-regulatory floodplains from Base Level Engineering (BLE), and effective regulatory flood plains from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).
Originally launched in October 2019, NDRAM was specifically designed as a one-stop shop resource for flood risk information. It is a cutting-edge and innovative technology that provides over 47 terabytes of data available to download free of charge.
The tool provides water surface elevations, flood depths, and the ability to download engineering model data, depth and velocity grids, and customized maps. NDRAM also allows concerned residents to type in their address (house number, zip code, and county) to get parcel-specific information. The address look-up feature leverages the state’s 911 location and address information.
Additional capabilities were recently added to NDRAM to enhance the platform’s benefits and functionality. While utilizing the tool’s high contrast BLE data view, the user can now access a weather tab that displays current warnings, observed river stages, significant river flood outlook, and snow water equivalent. These additional features provide further details and information for residents, emergency managers, stakeholders, and community leaders seeking flood risk data.
Along with the added features, a NDRAM tutorial video has been produced to assist users. The nearly ten-minute video provides a step-by-step guide on how to navigate NDRAM and aid in accessing data. A special thank you goes out to staff from FEMA, the North Dakota Department of Health, and the Water Commission for their contribution, insight, and efforts regarding the completion of the video.
Overall, NDRAM provides invaluable data and affords residents and communities the opportunity to be well informed about potential flood risk and more proactive concerning resiliency actions.
2021 SWC & OSE Strategic Plan
This past summer, the agency began the process of developing a new Strategic Plan, with a refocused approach to more clearly articulate our highest priorities, and to contribute to a reinvention of government.
As part of the strategic planning process and the Governor’s budgeting and strategy review directives, each of the agency’s divisions identified their highest project and program priorities. With that information, we then established new agency strategic initiatives/priorities to define how the agency and its staff can accomplish our goals.
As members of Team North Dakota, we are also deliberately working toward our shared purpose to: Empower People, Improve Lives, and Inspire Success. And to actively support North Dakota’s five strategic initiatives – Reinventing Government, Behavioral Health and Addiction, Tribal Partnerships, Transforming Education, and Main Street Initiative. These directives are also recognized as key elements of the Strategic Plan.
At their December 2020 meeting, the Water Commission endorsed the 2021 Strategic Plan. It is available for review on the agency’s website.
Regulatory Enacts Updated Construction & Drainage Permitting Policies
The Office of the State Engineer (OSE) recently updated policies regarding water management considerations for construction permitting, drainage permitting definitions, and statewide or interdistrict significance determinations.
Matt Lindsay, Engineering and Permitting Section Manager, discussed the new updates and revisions on December 4, 2020, at the 57th Joint Annual North Dakota Water Convention and Irrigation Workshop.
Matt presented background information on the policies and emphasized the need for changes. Prior to introducing these policies, agency staff drafted the requirements and concepts, identified criteria, and conducted in-depth research throughout the process. Legislative history, North Dakota Century Code history, Attorney General opinions, case law, and historical agency practices were examined to help with the implementation of the OSE’s updated policies.
The goals of the new policies are to provide clearer guidance, streamline jurisdictional decisions, put historical practice in writing, create more flexibility, and minimize application requirements where possible.
Training on the updated construction and drainage permits is available upon request.
Please contact Matt Lindsay at (701) 328-4949.
The policies are available on the Water Commission and Office of the State Engineer’s website.