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History and heartbreak: A sad day at Garrison Dam as spillway gates open

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GARRISON DAM - When the Garrison Dam spillway gates opened Wednesday to release flood water for the first time ever, fish rocketed out in the sudden gush of water.

They slapped down on the concrete spillway apron, where the released water was too shallow for them to be submerged.

They flopped, desperate for water to stay alive.

It was a pathetic sight. One woman turned away saying, "I can't watch this."

There were no "Hurrahs!" when the cold green water chuted through shortly before 8 a.m., at first a relatively small trickle at 7,500 cubic feet per second from seven gates. That will increase to 30,000 cfs when all 28 gates are open by Thursday night.

The release from the spillway will be gradually ratcheted up in days and weeks to come until the full release from dam systems reaches 150,000 cfs.

Behind it, the lake will continue to rise almost another 2 feet, water on both ends where it has never been before.

The sounds and sight of the spillway gates going up and water pouring through was fascinating and sobering.

The water from a bulging Lake Sakakawea has to go. But it will only mean a river of tears downstream in the Missouri River, where thousands can only watch it come in the highest, swiftest current in dam history.

"It's heartbreaking," said Lloyd Seilinger, of Pick City, who with several dozen folks, lined up alongside the spillway to watch history happen. "It makes me sad. Sad, sad."

He has family downstream in Bismarck-Mandan, where one has already abandoned their home and another is fighting to save his.

Donita Hauf, of Max, came with her husband and their son to witness the event.

"It's pretty crazy," she said. "It's too bad that there has to be so many people affected by this."

Bryon Zacher, of Parshall, said it was too wet to farm, so he and his sons and two South African farm helpers drove down to watch, too.

"It's a bad deal. This is nature, not what the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) did," Zacher said.

Lake resource manager Linda Phelps answered questions and handed out a few brochures, which explain the spillway structure and say, "To date, the spillway has never been used to release flood waters."

That was true for 57 years. Now, the brochures stand corrected.

"What a sight. It's historic, but when you think of what it will do all the way to (the state of) Missouri ..." Phelps said.

She said the decision to open the gates seven at a time and step up the initial release "little by little" over two days was wise. It'll give time for water to scour through the spillway pond and out through the pilot channel to the river, a half-mile off.

Within 45 minutes, the spillway pond was overflowing to the east and water was coursing down the channel, a distant ribbon of water, to the river, to Bismarck-Mandan and beyond.

The release is uncharted territory for the corps, which closed off public camping and other facilities below the dam.

"We've got to release this water to protect the dam," Phelps said. "I don't think people realize it would totally divide the country, destroying the railroads and interstates," if the dam ever failed, she said.

Dale Evenson, the dam's maintenance and operation supervisor, watched workers suspended on catwalks release the gate mechanisms one by one. One gate mechanism didn't function and will have to be repaired.

Evenson answered a buzz of media questions and turned to watch a sight as unique to him as anyone. He's watched when the gates are periodically "cracked" for maintenance, but the water is blocked back for those exercises. To see a froth of white water pour out of the gate openings, fill the spillway floor and cascade in a waterfall to the stilling pond below, well, that was one for the books and the brochures.

"It's not a good feeling to release water into a system that's already flooding, but these are the dynamics of what we've been dealt," he said.

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 220-5511, or lauren@westriv.com.)

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28 gates, each 29 feet high and 40 feet wide. Spillway length is 3,200 feet. Discharge design capacity of 827,000 cfs at 1,858.5 feet elevati…

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