Frustrated Devils Lake-area landowners present lake-level management petition to state leaders

The petition, signed by more than 50 Lake Region landowners and farmers at a meeting earlier in May, was presented at the Devils Lake Outlets Management Advisory Committee meeting in Devils Lake.

Former Churchs Ferry mayor Paul Christenson speaks to around 50 Lake Region landowners and farmers at a petition meeting in the Churchs Ferry Alumni Center on Thursday, May 4, in this Grand Forks Herald file photo.
Ingrid Harbo / Grand Forks Herald

DEVILS LAKE – Frustrated by high water that results in the loss of farmland, a group of Devils Lake-area landowners and farmers presented state leaders with a petition asking the state to reconsider how it manages Devils Lake levels on Wednesday, May 17.

The petition, signed by more than 50 Lake Region landowners and farmers at a meeting earlier in May, was presented at the Devils Lake Outlets Management Advisory Committee meeting in Devils Lake on Wednesday afternoon. The 17-member committee advises the North Dakota Water Commision on the operation of the Devils Lake outlets. Committee members include representatives from cities and counties around Devils Lake, downstream cities, Grand Forks, Fargo, Minnesota and Manitoba.

Paul Christenson, the former mayor of the nearby unincorporated community of Churchs Ferry, organized the petition and held a meeting to sign the petition on Thursday, May 4, in Churchs Ferry.

“I’ve got about 55 signatures from those people, and they all came to Churchs Ferry for one reason and one reason only — to try to find a way to put more pressure on this room of people to do a better job of removing water consistently off the lake and getting that level down,” Christenson said.

Christopher Paul James Morrison was last seen leaving the Lake Region Reentry Center in Devils Lake around 11:54 p.m. on Monday, May 22.

The petition asks state leaders to operate the Devils Lake outlets to maintain a lake elevation of 1,446 feet and to label the Devils Lake Basin as a disaster area in an emergency.


At Wednesday’s meeting, North Dakota Department of Water Resources staff outlined past outlet operations, current water levels and this year’s outlet operations plans.

Flooding has been an issue in Devils Lake for nearly 30 years. Lake levels started rising during a wet cycle that began in the early 1990s, flooding agricultural land, houses and roads in the surrounding area. Devils Lake reached an all-time high of 1,454.3 feet in 2011. State managed outlets began operations in 2007 and 2012.

This year, the lake rose to around 1450.5 feet. The Department of Water Resources began outlet operations on Monday, May 15. Outlet operations are dependent on downstream conditions in the Sheyenne River and sulfate levels.

The operating plan this year is to operate the outlets as much as possible, Chris Korkowski, investigations section chief at the Department of Water Resources, told the committee.

“The plan is basically to remove as much water as possible given the constraints of downstream flooding and water quality, as previously mentioned,” Korkowski said. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to continue to maintain the outlets and run the outlets during the 2023 period.”

Outlet operations will shut down in the fall, but the exact timing of outlet operations ending will depend on overnight temperatures in October and November, Korkowski said.

Members of the Outlets Advisory Committee shared a range of opinions, with some siding with petitioning landowners, while others noted the importance of lowering lake levels while keeping recreational business owners in the region in mind.

Bill Mertens, who represents Ramsey County, said some businesses on the lake like marinas and resorts have built infrastructure for levels around 1,448 feet and worry that lower lake levels will make that infrastructure obsolete.


“I like to think that the best thing to do is to get the water down as far as the pumps can take it down, but I did have a long visit with some of the people in the recreational industry in the area too, which is very, very important,” he said.

Former Devils Lake Mayor Dick Johnson called for lake stabilization, using outlets and creating an inlet to maintain a steady lake level year round.

“We all know what the answer is — lake stabilization, where we can stabilize the lake at a certain elevation where everybody could plan on planting their crops and the recreation enthusiasts could meet their desires,” Johnson said.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum serves as the chair of the North Dakota Water Commission. In a meeting with the Grand Forks Herald’s editorial board on Wednesday, May 10, Burgum said at a state level, decisions about Devils Lake levels are a balancing act between landowner concerns, water quality requirements, recreation and downstream conditions.

“The time to have that discussion is now, because there have been times where people downstream when we were flooding, like Lisbon, Valley City and places like that, didn’t have flood protection, which they do now,” Burgum said.

Burgum said he has confidence in Andrea Travnicek and members of the Water Commission to address the issue.

“I know the staff of the Water Commission and the Water Commission members will dig into this thing and we’ll see where we go,” Burgum said. “If there was an easy answer, we wouldn’t be talking about it because it would already be taken care of."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that Devils Lake reached an all-time high of 1,454.3 feet in 2011.

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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