With nowhere to go, Devils Lake spills over; solutions not simple

North Dakota State Roundup

Published July 1, 1997  | July 1997 issue

Although the dramatic rise in the water level of Devils Lake has been voted North Dakota's top news story for two years in a row, it should lose its number 1 ranking in 1997—ironically to another flood, this time in the Red River Valley. The two problems are linked by the fact that, according to most sources, any relief for inhabitants of the Devils Lake basin involves opening an outlet for the lake into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red.

"We want to make it absolutely clear that we were aware of the possible impact on our downstream neighbors before this past spring's floods," stresses Randy Frost, executive vice president of the city of Devils Lake Chamber of Commerce. "Any outlet will not have a 12-month flow, and we will never," Frost emphasizes, "move water during high flow periods."

Through the month of June, according to state engineer Dave Sprynczynatyk, the lake remained stable and probably will not rise another foot and a half, as was predicted. Still, since 1993, a 20-foot rise in Devils Lake caused by greater than average rain and snow fall has been responsible for roughly $200 million in damages.

Hardest hit by the creeping flood have been the area's farmers. Approximately 400,000 acres of previously productive land in seven counties are now under water. Landowners may qualify for relief of $80 to $90 per acre under the 1995 North Dakota State Water Commission Available Storage Acreage Program. Eligible land will be leased for periods up to two years to provide temporary sites to store water before it reaches the lake. As part of a long-term solution, money has also been set aside for wetlands reclamation. While some locals might agree with environmentalists who claim that problems in the region have been exacerbated by the draining of privately held wetlands, any attempts toward the permanent restoration of wetlands on private property will probably be vigorously opposed.

The construction of an artificial drain for the lake, which is spreading over one of only two basins in the United States without a natural outlet, will cost over $70 million. The Army Corps of Engineers is already preparing a plan. Any outlet, however, could cause "tremendous water quality problems downstream," according to Roger Hollovoet, district director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake. Consequently, officials from Minnesota and Canada are taking part in talks regarding permanent solutions.

Over $100 million has already been spent on infrastructure repairs and the movement of homes to higher ground. Many millions more have been earmarked for a continuation of this process. According to Frost, prior efforts have saved the town of Devils Lake—at 7,500 persons the 10th largest city in North Dakota—from disappearing. A permanent levee, which will be raised even higher, is holding back the flood waters. Nevertheless, if the lake gets much higher, there is the potential for a major disaster.

Starting in mid-July, volunteers from the Devils Lake business community will undertake a survey to estimate the real economic costs of the flood to the community. While the actual damage to local business is still relatively minor, it is difficult to measure the amount of lost revenues or decline in the rate of growth caused by the flooding. The survey will attempt to do just that.

On the silver lining side, the lake itself is in great shape for the area's $30 million a year tourism industry. The biggest problem has been a lack of access to the lake, since all the boat landings and many of the nearby roads were under water. As of the end of June, five boat landings have been opened or reopened at a cost of up to $100,000 each.

Although it seems counterintuitive, both long- and short-term efforts will be focused on getting more water into the Devils Lake area. Since 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers has been studying ways to stabilize the lake at a level which homeowners, businesses and the tourism industry can rely upon. Since the lake is too low far more often than it is too high, officials are seeking ways to pump water into the lake during times of drought. As far as immediate needs are concerned, the early summer of 1997 has been extremely dry, and many local farmers are praying for a "million dollar" rain, providing it falls on the black side of the ledger, and not the red.

David Page