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Officials seek answers in Devils Lake flooding

DEVILS LAKE -- In 1995, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator James Lee Witt made the first of two tours of the Devils Lake Basin, to see how the federal government could help the region recover from a two-year flood.

Devils Lake

DEVILS LAKE -- In 1995, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator James Lee Witt made the first of two tours of the Devils Lake Basin, to see how the federal government could help the region recover from a two-year flood.

At the time, the National Weather Service listed a 1-in-10 chance that by 1996, the level of Devils Lake would exceed 1,438 feet above mean sea level, the highest since it reached 1,438.4 feet in 1867.

In 1996, then-Vice President Al Gore witnessed the flood, taking another eyewitness report back to then-President Bill Clinton.

At the time, nobody was talking about potential elevations of 1,450 feet.

In 2001, when then-FEMA Administrator Joe Albaugh toured the basin, the lake was at 1,446 feet, with another 2-foot rise expected in 2002.


When FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate tours the region today, to headline a half-day Devils Lake Summit arranged by North Dakota's congressional delegation, the lake will be at a record elevation of about 1,451.5 feet.

That's more than 28 feet higher than it was in 1993, when the current wet cycle kicked into high gear. Since then, about $1 billion has been spent to fight the 17-year-old flood. More than 650 structures, including some 450 homes, have been moved or destroyed -- some more than once -- in the region because of the rising water.

The lake has tripled in size, swallowing about 10,000 acres of farmland with each 1-foot rise. A recent North Dakota State University study indicates the flood is costing the Devils Lake Basin's agricultural economy about $83 million annually. Some farmers have lost 2,000 acres of prime farmland.

"We're in the center of the trade area, but we're losing the trade," Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott said last week during a tour by Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "People all around us are losing their homes, their farms, their small businesses."

"It almost has the effect of choking the commercial viability of the community," added Scott Stofferahn, Sen. Kent Conrad's eastern North Dakota director.

The lake already has claimed one area community. Churchs Ferry was bought out by the federal government nearly a decade ago. Only a handful of residents remain.

These days, the sprawling lake is threatening the city of Minnewaukan, the Benson County seat of 300.

And hundreds of miles of township, county and state roads have been closed because of flooding.


Nearing spill level

The lake now is just 6.5 feet away from 1,458 feet, the elevation at which it will spill naturally to the Tolna Coulee and the Sheyenne River, which runs into the Red River of the North, Lake Winnipeg and ultimately into Hudson Bay.

These days, people in the Devils Lake Basin no longer talk about "if" when referring to the lake overflowing. They say "when."

Another $200 million is being spent over the next two years to raise major roads and to raise, fortify and lengthen a dike that will become a dam protecting the city of Devils Lake and its 7,000 residents.

The Devils Lake Basin never would have seen that kind of federal help, local officials said, had not people in Washington come to see the phenomenon for themselves.

When they visit with the present FEMA administrator, they'll lobby for a comprehensive plan for Devils Lake, Sen. Kent Conrad said.

They want a long-term solution to a 130-year-old quest for lake stabilization. And at the top of the agenda will be a control structure built on the east end of the lake that would prevent the uncontrolled spill of lake water down the Sheyenne Valley, which could inundate communities such as Tolna, Valley City and Lisbon, along with major population areas along the Red River.

People in downstream communities, from Valley City to Winnipeg, have protested any water releases from Devils Lake, saying transfer of water from the Devils Lake Basin will pollute and introduce unwanted species and biota to the Red River.


A small-scale Devils Lake outlet was built by the state of North Dakota on the west end of Devils Lake and started operating in 2005. But it has done little to relieve the growing water problem.

Besides, locals note that the Devils Lake already is a sub-basin of the Red, that the lake has spilled into the Sheyenne in the past, and that biota transfers occur virtually every spring, as water from the upper Devils Lake Basin crosses a divide to the Pembina, Park and other rivers that run directly to the Red.

Fugate will be accompanied on the tour by a large contingent of top-level federal agency officials. Here is a partial list of those who will participate in the summit:

- Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

- Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

- Victor Mendez, Federal Highway Administration administrator.

- Mike Black, Bureau of Indian Affairs director.

- Suzette Kimball, U.S. Geological Survey deputy director.


- John Hayes, National Weather Service director.

- Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

- Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

- Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

- Myra Pearson, Spirit Lake Nation chairwoman.

- North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven.

- Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general, North Dakota National Guard.

- Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott.


They'll tour by ground and by air. The two-hour summit will begin at 11 a.m. today at Lake Region State College.

How we got here

Nearly 130 years ago, Edward E. Heerman saw the promise.

"Devils Lake was a beautiful body of water fringed with timber, and the locality was dotted with other beautiful lakes. I examined the soil and believed that I had found an empire of undeveloped resources," the captain of the steamboat, the Minnie H, wrote at the time, shortly after his arrival in November 1882.

Later that month at Reads Landing, Minn., he started building the Minnie H, which operated on Devils Lake from July 4, 1883 until fall 1908. During that time, the region prospered.

North Dakota Chautauqua, held annually at Lakewood, along a beach just south of the city of Devils Lake, which, according to its historical record, grew into the nation's third-largest summer festival, hosting orators and luminaries such as William Jennings Bryan, Carrie Nation and Billy Sunday.

It ferried people and goods to communities such as Minnewaukan and Churchs Ferry and dozens of others that dotted the shoreline.

While the steamboat industry was challenged by the railroad for intercontinental transportation over that span of time, on Devils Lake, it was nature that dry-docked the Minnie H.


Heerman recorded lake levels throughout his career and watched it slowly recede. He wasn't alone.

As early as Nov. 12, 1889, just 10 days after North Dakota became a state, an Irrigation Convention held in Grand Forks adopted a resolution seeking long-term stabilization for Devils Lake. It requested Congress to consider the possibility of a canal from the Missouri River to Devils Lake and eastern North Dakota.

Overflowing to dry and back

Geologic evidence exists that Devils Lake has overflowed into nearby Stump Lake and into the Sheyenne and Red Rivers at least twice in the past 10,000 years -- when the last glacier retreated northward -- and at least once in the past 2,000 years.

Research also indicates that the lake also has dropped to about 1,398 feet above sea level, a point at which the lake bed was all but dry.

Recorded history of the Devils Lake Basin, as well as much of the Northern Great Plains, extends back only to the mid- to late-1800s, when Euro-American settlement of the basin began. Land surveys at the time showed tree ring evidence that the lake was about 1,441 feet in 1830.

The first recorded lake elevation was 1,438.4 feet above sea level in 1867. While dropping slowly, the lake was at 1,433 feet in 1880 and remained above 1,425 until 1890.

Those early settlers realized over the next several years that the lake level gradually was dropping. Between 1880 and 1910, the lake elevation fell 12 feet, to 1,421 feet.

In 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped in Devils Lake on a train trip across the northern United States. The Missouri River Diversion Project was being considered by Congress at the time and FDR wanted to see the drought conditions throughout the Northwest.

In 1940, Devils Lake neared its lowest recorded elevation -- 1,400.9 feet. The lake covered about 10.2 square miles.

Four years later, Congress approved the Flood Control Act of 1944, authorizing a plan to build a series of mainstem dams along the Missouri River for flood control, navigation, irrigation and hydroelectric power. In North Dakota, that meant Garrison Dam and Reservoir.

While Garrison Dam was built, the irrigation water transfer components to eastern North Dakota were shelved.

But the dry cycle had reversed, and Devils Lake was slowly filling up again, accumulating water from rain, from groundwater, and from runoff through its 3,800-square-mile basin that stretches into seven northeastern North Dakota counties.

Although there were some periods of decline between 1940 and 1987, the lake rose to a then-high level of 1,428 feet.

Homes and businesses were built along Creel Bay and East Bay, and the fishing industry began to prosper, as walleye, perch and other fish were stocked in the lake.

Then, a mini-drought hit the basin, dropping the lake elevation below 1,425 feet by 1992.

Locals formed the Lake Preservation Coalition, to lobby in Washington once again for lake stabilization.

50 inches of rain

In May 1993, regional leaders met with state officials to discuss a real fear - that if the lake level continued to decline, even just a few more feet, oxygen levels would be so low that they would threaten the very existence of the local fishery.

Those attending that meeting barely had returned to their offices to study suggestions and alternatives when it started raining -- with a vengeance. Over the next three months, nearly 50 inches of rain -- about three times the average annual precipitation -- fell in the Devils Lake Basin.

While the rain was a godsend for the lake, it was bittersweet for farmers. Fields became saturated, then flooded.

By mid-August, once-promising fields of wheat and barley were covered with water as deep as 8 feet. One farmer near Webster, N.D., about 15 miles north of the city of Devils Lake, described his water-covered barley field as "blue barley."

Since then, the lake has risen by more than 28 feet. The lake hit a record elevation of 1,450.73 feet in June 2009. Some evaporation dropped the level to about 1,450 feet by freeze-up.

But it's been rising since March, setting a new record nearly every day. On Friday, it was at 1,451.5 feet. The National Weather Service said it likely will peak at about 1,452 feet this year, given normal precipitation.

The U.S. Geological Survey said there's a 10 percent chance the lake will reach that 1,458-foot spill elevation in the next decade.

Today, a monument stands in front of Minnie H Elementary School, on the west side of the city of Devils Lake. Some 120 to 130 years ago, it was a dock for Heerman's Minnie H. steamboat.

If not for the dike that is being converted to a dam to protect the city to an elevation 1,460 feet, this school and much of the community would be under water.

"But the fishing's good," Ramsey County Emergency Manager Tim Heisler, who also is a Devils Lake city commissioner, told the Army Corps assistant secretary as he described the region's $30 million annual tourist industry.

"The only trouble is, you can't get to the lake."

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