Senator Cramer raises Lake Ilo concerns in hearing

Cramer calls for expedited fix of drained dam at Lake Ilo and greater collaboration with local communities, advocates for standardized metrics and satellite overlay maps for waterfowl easements.

Lake Ilo
Lake Ilo sign.
Jason O'Day / The Dickinson Press

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kevin Cramer, R-ND, raised concerns from his constituents at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing. He questioned U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams. Cramer urged the agency to work with local communities to expeditiously fix the dam at Lake Ilo, which the FWS recently drained to low levels again this spring.

On April 27, the FWS published a proposed rule clarifying drain tile may be installed on lands encumbered by a wetland easement provided that protected wetland areas are not drained, directly or indirectly. The proposed regulations require the Service to establish drain tile setback distances based upon the best available science, soil characteristics, tile diameter, depth of tile below the surface, and topography. This ensures protected wetland areas are not drained.

He also talked about the importance of providing satellite overlay maps of new easements and setting consistent metrics between the FWS and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for establishing drain tile setbacks on properties with Waterfowl Production Area easements.

Cramer first outlined the fallout from Lake Ilo’s draining, which area residents must now manage by cleaning up the rotting fish left behind. He also criticized the federal agency’s “poor communication” with local groups and emphasized the recreation and agricultural use of the water.

“The permanent fix the Service has been working on is expected to be completed in a couple of years. This is a big, immediate problem and I'm pleading with you to work with me. Tell me how I can help you fix this earthen dam sooner than a couple of years from now, because another spring would be really difficult like this. Can we try to work faster?” Cramer asked.


“I am aware of this issue,” Williams replied. “My understanding is we are working to get the design complete and understand the need to fix this as quickly as possible. I apologize we haven’t worked well with the community. I know we have tried. I would like to work with you on this and can understand it's very unfortunate.”

Also addressed were Waterfowl Production Area easements, many of which do not receive satellite overlay maps, as well as varying drain tile setback requirements due to the often-siloed operations across federal agencies. Ideally, the FWS should adopt the NRCS threshold as the uniform standard.

“What I worry about is not just having a certain high-tech, literal map of an easement, but it further erodes confidence between the landowner and the Service. We would like to get to a 95% certainty standard, which is what the NRCS at USDA has for their easements, rather than the 99% the Service uses. Reconciling all of this will help everybody better understand what they're dealing with,” Cramer said, and asked what she knows about this.

Kevin Cramer
Rep. Kevin Cramer holds a press conference the morning after his Senate win in November.
Forum News Service file photo

Williams explained they have distinct refuge managers who are not law enforcement agents but are responsible for managing easements.

“We have completed the pre-1976 mapping and appeal process. We have codified for clarity and transportation drain tile setbacks. Now, we're starting this new process. My understanding is we are working to provide those colored satellite photos for the easements. I don’t have the totally up-to-date information, but that was something we are aware of, and it’s a helpful tool we would like to be able to provide,” she said.

Senator Cramer briefly reiterated the need to reconcile the 95% and 99% drain tile thresholds. In response, Director Williams confirmed she is “working diligently” to square the discrepancy to align with NRCS.

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