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June 6, 2011 9:16 PM   Subscribe

Much to the frustration of the local population the Devils Lake Basin is currently endorheic, but this may be about to change(photo is from a year ago). An epically inadequate outlet was finished in 2005. Like most land management issues this one is complex(see bottom of pg. 45), but one thing is for sure: at several points in the past Devils Lake naturally flowed into the Sheyenne River and eventually into Hudson Bay. The state government wants to armor the outlet to prevent the natural overflow, but the city of Devils Lake owns the land and is preventing any construction until a negotiated lake level is agreed upon.

Full disclosure: I was born on a farm/ranch near the village of Churchs Ferry, ND which was for all intents and purposes wiped out by the flooding. None of my family's land is threatened as it is all above the 1458 ASL overflow into the Sheyenne River, but the cemetery where my great grandparents and grandparents are buried will most probably be flooded this year.

The current level of the lake is at 1454.21 ft. ASL. At 1458 ft. ASL the lake will begin to overflow into the Sheyenne River. The spring runoff is still coming and in just the last month the lake has risen 0.45 ft. So what will happen if the natural outlet isn't armored or in some other way controlled? Estimates range from not so bad to catastrophic. So what are the solutions? At this point the only sure thing is that at some point this will all end up in court.

Some local opinions.(read comments)

Some links to plans for an outlet and studies on its possible impacts:

Climatology, Hydrology, and Simulation of an Emergency Outlet, Devils Lake Basin, North Dakota

Devils Lake East End Outlet Alternative Analysis

U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Integrated Planning Report and Environmental Impact Statement(this is an oldie but a goodie)

Report of the Devils Lake Basin Technical Review Team

Some more links on the hydrology and history of the Devils Lake basin:

ND State Water Commission Report

Understanding and Explaining Hydro-Climate Variations at Devils Lake

And finally if anyone wants investigate the topic further:

USGS Bibliographic Listing of Reports and Abstracts Related to Devils Lake
posted by AElfwine Evenstar (22 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
Whoops, I forgot: (previously)
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 9:22 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


I was just out in Grand Forks and folks were talking about this. A guy told me that it was hard to drive around Devil's Lake because roads are covered with water. Some spots had one way in and out. The water wants what it wants. No getting around that.

I am going to spend some more time in the links. Thanks for posting.
posted by zerobyproxy at 9:35 PM on June 6, 2011


So much flooding this year! Thanks for this.
posted by nile_red at 9:41 PM on June 6, 2011


My folks grew up in Devils Lake. This is a picture of Devils Lake in the 1950's (my aunt) with a sign indicating the high water mark during an extremely wet year in 1885. That sign is now under 30 feet of water.
posted by blob at 10:10 PM on June 6, 2011 [8 favorites]


Why on earth would you build in an area like this?
posted by unSane at 10:13 PM on June 6, 2011


This is a pretty well-researched post.

The "is complex" link gives a pretty good overview of the challenges, and why the regular answer of "do nothing" might not be all that great (poisonous microfauna not found outside of Devil's Lake, basically) but also wouldn't be catastrophic.
posted by klangklangston at 10:17 PM on June 6, 2011


New York Times coverage from 1999 and opinion from 2005. As to "why on earth would you build in an area like this?", the area was settled in the 1880s, and was reasonably stable until the early 1990s. It was good land with ample water nearby. (Now, it's ample water on top...) Why wouldn't you build there? The lake had never been an issue until the 1990s.
posted by blob at 10:25 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


If only they could send the overflow to the Aral Sea....

unSane, see this water level history chart. It seems to have been in a long-term recession up until 1940 when the hydrology changed somehow, after which it began to rise. Alarmingly, though, in the last 15 years it began a steep increase that outstripped the historical experience.

We have a couple of endorheic lakes around here in Southern Wisconsin (not our Devils Lake, though!), but they're fairly small by comparison. The problem is basically similar. Water flows in, and the water table below has risen or won't fall, and so the water never goes away. For decades such a body can seem stable, rising and falling a few feet back and forth, and then the system goes amok and it won't stop rising or falling.

In human terms most bodies of water are stable for the typical ownership lifetime of a house, but not always. In terms of the structural lifetime of the house, though, things are a little less certain. On a larger scale, we have the problem of the Mississippi, the Atachafalaya, and the city of New Orleans -- which won't survive if the Mississippi decides, regardless of the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, that it wants the shortest route to the sea.
posted by dhartung at 10:26 PM on June 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why on earth would you build in an area like this?

Probably because the original settlers weren't hip to concepts like glacial lakes and climate change. When I was growing up in the 1980's the shore of Devils Lake was around 25 miles from my front door; now the shore of devils lake is about 3 miles away. Basically the lake has never been this high during the period the area has been settled. I remember when I was young I asked my father why Churchs Ferry was named so. He answered that when my great grandpa's parents originally settled the area a man by the name of Church operated a ferry to cross the Mauvais Coulee. For the life of me I couldn't understand why someone would operate a ferry over a stretch of water I could wade across. During the 90's I got the answer to that childhood musing. Even then in the 1880's while the lake was higher than the 1980's it was no where near current levels.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 10:26 PM on June 6, 2011


I understand, but am tired of "why are people there" questions re: natural disasters.
posted by nile_red at 11:34 PM on June 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also for people interested in water quality issues...I forgot to include this in the fpp: Devils Lake Basin Water Quality Time-Series Plots
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 11:56 PM on June 6, 2011


Why on earth would you build in an area like this?

I never understand this question, unless it's being directed at someone who lives on the rim of an actively erupting volcano or something. Somewhere there is someone who wonders why the hell you live where you live, too.

This is a fantastic post; thanks!
posted by rtha at 4:02 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


And then there's the whole Wikileaks thing about it: WikiLeaks shows bitter Canada-U.S. water tiff.
posted by scruss at 5:05 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Why on earth would you build in an area like this?

For years Devil's Lake was consistently low - drought and climate kept the lake level at an equilibrium much lower than it is now. They built back beyond what the detectable high-water mark was, and thought it'd be good enough. Since the late 80s, after the last drought cycle, North Dakota has been pretty wet. Devil's Lake has no good natural outlet -- the 'Sheyenne Outlet', from what I understand, isn't really an outlet, it's a low spot between hills that ends up draining into the Sheyenne, while filling up a number of lowspots and turning them into little temporary lakes or sloughs. I suppose if you had hydrological experts who could have told you what the highest possible water level could be, but when you're a German immigrant in the 1920s, you do the best with what you've got.

The people who did have the engineering acumen to avoid high water would be the people who ran the railroad across the country. Now, the water's so high the Empire Builder can't even run it's usual line.

If you want to see why people think the Sheyenne drainage is a bad idea, pull up a map of the Sheyenne River. Devil's Lake isn't too far from Canada, but the Sheyenne doesn't flow that way. They Sheyenne flows south, within 30 miles of the South Dakota border, then turns back northward for about 30 miles, and then connects with the Red River, which then flows all the way to Lake Winnipeg, Canada.

The Sheyenne and the Red, as people watching the news over the past twenty years know, flood like a motherfucker every year. The Sheyenne and the Red run through almost every major city in the Red River Valley. Anything that threatens to raise river levels for the whole eastern half of the state freaks people out. Then the Missouri is flooding, the Mouse/Souris is flooding, there's forced evacuations and towns completely cut off from land by sandbag dikes, and people would much rather think Devil's Lake should be fine on it's own than aggravate everybody else.

Personally, I think a controlled draining into the Sheyenne from July to freezeover wouldn't be such a bad thing - the rivers get pretty low by that time, or at least low enough that 6 months of controlled inflows, plus the controls of the Baldhill Dam, keep things even. But I, like most complainers, don't really know which direction is 'downhill' from Devil's Lake. If draining into a river as planned is enough of a problem, I can only imagine the troubles that would be caused if the water decides that downhill is a direction nobody had thought of before.

The Tolna Coulee protest was actually sort of awesome: it was advertised as a "bring shovels" protest, as though they'd start digging unless the state did something. The Sheriff was worried somebody would show up with a backhoe to get the work started.
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:44 AM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


When I was growing up in the 1980's the shore of Devils Lake was around 25 miles from my front door; now the shore of devils lake is about 3 miles away.

Figured it was about time to hit post, huh?
posted by dhartung at 8:33 AM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Sure, there have been wet times, but the land-use change has had an effect as well.. (Well, according to wiki) that by removing native prairies, bulldozing wetlands to make more crop lands and planting crops, that has increased run-off during storms by reducing the capacity of the land to store/slow/filter rain water..
posted by k5.user at 8:41 AM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


And then there's the whole Wikileaks thing about it: WikiLeaks shows bitter Canada-U.S. water tiff.

It's not a "wikileaks thing". Anyone paying attention would've known there was conflict long before any freakin' cables were leaked: people don't like having their homes and fields flooded.
posted by Kurichina at 8:59 AM on June 7, 2011


rtha: "Somewhere there is someone who wonders why the hell you live where you live, too."

Unless you live in inland Connecticut.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:35 AM on June 7, 2011


This is a truly excellent post and very useful for me. Land management policy is difficult in the best of times, and when so much of the policy hinges on the ability of academic and agency scientists to make accurate predictions about outcomes, it gets darn near impossible. So excruciating to be the people watching the water slowly slowly rise to take your land-- and know that it's moving faster than the policy effects can.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 9:38 AM on June 7, 2011


"Sure, there have been wet times, but the land-use change has had an effect as well.. (Well, according to wiki) that by removing native prairies, bulldozing wetlands to make more crop lands and planting crops, that has increased run-off during storms by reducing the capacity of the land to store/slow/filter rain water.."

The long Lake Winnipeg pdf is pretty clear that human intervention has had a negligible effect on the water levels (unless you want to make a really broad anthropocentric climate change argument, but that's a little too abstract to draw direct conclusions from), and that almost all of the shift is from climactic cycles.
posted by klangklangston at 10:26 AM on June 7, 2011


The politics of water have always been a heated issue here in North Dakota and being next door to Canada certainly doesn't make it any easier. I see no easy fix for Devil's Lake which is sad for such a great area.

Props to the submitter for the proper use of Uff Da.
posted by Ber at 12:05 PM on June 7, 2011


A few days late, but I thought I'd add my $0.02.

The Atlantic recently ran a series of articles about the people who live near Devils Lake and how they are coping. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

The growth of the lake has been impressive enough to make NASA's picture of the day. The public has been submitting photos of the flooding here and here. It's kind of easy to shrug the photos off a little, "yawn more flooding". But you have to remember that the water is not going to go down, at least not for the foreseeable future.

They've spent millions of dollars raising the roads, but the water is so close that on windy days they get problems like this. They actually have to use snowplows to get debris off the roads after the waves come crashing over.

Thanks for posting this AElfwine Evenstar. I saw the previous thread on Devils Lake and was just thinking that we were due for an update.
posted by weathergal at 12:05 AM on June 10, 2011


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