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North Dakota's inland ocean

The North Dakota landscape often is described as a patchwork quilt of farm fields, of crops separated by threads of rural roads a mile apart that stretch in the same direction for mile after mile.

Devils Lake
N.D. Highways 57 and 20 are ribbons in the water as they lead to Spirit Lake Casino and Marina. The North Dakota Department of Transportation is raising both roads again this year, to continue to provide access to and from the city of Devils Lake and Spirit Lake Nation. Herald photo by Sarah Kolberg.

The North Dakota landscape often is described as a patchwork quilt of farm fields, of crops separated by threads of rural roads a mile apart that stretch in the same direction for mile after mile.

Well, today, in the Devils Lake Basin, that quilt appears to be floating in a vast swimming pool, with those long, straight roads reduced to water-logged lanes that rise out of the water for short distances as if they're puffed up with air, only to disappear once again beneath the water's surface.

The bright green and yellow patches of wheat, canola and mustard fade quickly to muddy shades of browns and grays, as the water, sometimes trimmed with pale lines of whitecaps, eats away at the land.

It's a vastly different picture from a couple decades ago.

In the summer of 1991, Herald photographer John Stennes and I spent 20 hours flying over North Dakota to observe what many people then called the end of a mini-drought that had lasted about three or four years. The Herald published a four-page section, "North Dakota in Green and Gold."


"Rain has returned to the Plains," I wrote back then. "In 1991, the grass turned green. Trees grew full. Rivers widened. Lakes rose.

"There are patches of North Dakota that the rainclouds passed by, where the drought of the late 1980s lingers still. And there are others, where rain came too hard, too fast, and drenched a promising crop.

"But for the most part, North Dakota is lush this year, from the Red River Valley to the Badlands, from the Turtle Mountains to the Prairie Heartland. ...

"It is a land worthy of picture postcards ... Each farmer is a landscape artist, creating brushstrokes along shelterbelts and rivers, around rock piles and lakes."

In the Devils Lake Basin, it was the first hint that a once-promising fishing and tourism industry -- that now is estimated at more than $30 million annually -- might rebound.

When the first European settlers arrived in the Devils Lake Basin in the early 1880s, the lake was at an elevation of about 1,435 to 1,440 feet above sea level. Settlers called Devils Lake the Inland Ocean. And steamboats carried passengers and freight from town to town along the shoreline.

But the lake elevation was slowly falling. By 1940, it dropped to 1,400.9 feet.

Anybody who has lived in the Devils Lake Basin since the 1950s can tell stories about being able to walk across what is now East Bay. Devils Lake was so small that its waters were contained almost exclusively in Main Bay, south of the city.


But the lake was slowly rebounding. By the mid-1980s, it was above 1,425 feet, and local residents started building a fishing and tourism industry.

Just as quickly as a couple of businesses opened, the lake started falling again, dropping about 6 feet from 1987 to 1993, in what later was determined to be the second-worst drought in recorded history.

A Lake Preservation Coalition was formed to lobby the state and federal governments to bring water into Devils Lake, perhaps from the Missouri River.

But nature took care of that problem in the late spring of 1993. It rained all summer.

The lake elevation rose by about 1 foot every two to three weeks.

By August, roads in the upper basin began to flood.

Except for 2005 through 2007, the lake has been rising ever since.

Devils Lake today


This past week, I took another flight over the Devils Lake Basin, this time with Herald photographer Sarah Kolberg and pilot Chris James, a flight instructor working with UND and the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

Although they didn't have the birds-eye perspective, the early settlers were close to the mark in their descriptions. If Devils Lake isn't an inland ocean, it is a vast sea, stretching some 50 miles east to west, from a relocated N.D. Highway 1 at Stump Lake to beyond Churchs Ferry and a relocated U.S. 281, and some 40 miles north to south.

The lake has risen almost 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993.

Portions of the basin appear to be more like an aerial view of the Florida Everglades than the Prairie Pothole region.

Coulees are bulging rivers, water spilling from their banks, drowning once-fertile fields of durum.

Small lakes have merged into one. It is impossible to see where one ends and another begins.

Patches of brown and green shelterbelts seemingly grow right out of the water.

Where they're visible, grain bins, barns and shelterbelts rise out of the sea.


Farmstead after abandoned farmstead is isolated; roads leading to them have been washed away.

Standing water is visible on virtually every section of land, even every quarter-section of 160 acres.

Entire towns are virtually surrounded. Penn. Churchs Ferry. Minnewaukan. Roads and houses are swamped on the Spirit Lake Nation.

The lake, at 1,452 feet, is just 6 feet from reaching its natural spill elevation.

After rising by about 5 feet the past two years, the rising lake is prompting emergency responses, as local, state and federal officials try to find a solution and avoid what most believe could be an uncontrolled spill from Stump Lake, through the Tolna Coulee to the Sheyenne River.

The potential downstream impacts of such an uncontrolled release of water have not been calculated, but they are worrisome, if not daunting.

Water is everywhere in northeastern North Dakota. If this were spring, it would be one thing, because spring floods eventually pass. But this water stays year-round.

The swimming pool of the Devils Lake Basin is full.


The emotional toll this two-decade-long flood has taken can be experienced on the ground by listening to people, flood victims, talk about losing not just their land or the roads necessary to reach their homes, but their very livelihoods.

What's clear in the summer of 2010 is that nature is an abstract artist.

For this year, the landscape of the Devils Lake Basin is painted not so much in greens and golds of a promising harvest, but also -- in both physical and emotional terms -- in abstract swirls of muddy browns and grays.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to kbonham@gfherald.com .

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