It’s been called a slow-growing monster: a huge lake that has steadily expanded over the last 20 years, swallowing up thousands of acres, hundreds of buildings, and at least two towns in its rising waters.
Devils Lake keeps growing because it has no natural river or stream to carry away excess rain and snowmelt. Now it has climbed within 6 feet of overflowing, raising fears that some downstream communities could be washed away if the water level isn’t reduced.
Those worries are compounded by another problem. Scientists believe the pattern of heavy rain and snow that filled the lake is likely to continue for at least another decade.
No other place in North America has faced such a dilemma. The nation’s only other significant “closed-basin” lake is the Great Salt Lake, which was in danger of flooding housing developments in the mid-1980s. But shortly after the state spent $70 million on huge pumps, a dry spell began. Those pumps stand idle.
Since the water in Devils Lake began rising in the early 1990s, more than 400 homes around the lake have been relocated or destroyed.
The lake, about 160 miles northwest of Fargo, is the largest freshwater body in North Dakota, with an estimated shoreline of at least 1,000 miles. It’s up to 75 feet deep and has attracted tourists from across the nation with excellent fishing and other recreational activities.
But locals are fretting that the lake is a catastrophic flood waiting to be released in their direction.
In the tiny town of Minnewaukan, the lake was once 8 miles away. Today it is lapping at the community from three sides, and residents are begging for help.
The lake currently stands at just over 1,451 feet above sea level. If it climbs above 1,458 feet, its water will spill into the Sheyenne River, which flows through southeastern North Dakota before it heads into Canada.
Among the threatened cities is Valley City, west of Fargo. The mayor there said that a spillover could raise the river more than 5 feet above a record 2009 flood, which forced most of the town’s 6,300 residents to evacuate. That might flood half of the city.
By the end of 2010, the federal government will have spent more than $1 billion to ease the threat, buying flooded properties, building dikes, and making other improvements. The figure doesn’t include a $27 million floodwater-diversion channel built by the state on the west end of the lake. It is also costing $330,000 a month for the electricity for pumps to take 1 inch of the lake.
All of these measures are temporary, however. The final solution–and its cost–is not known.
Devils Lake has nearly quadrupled in size since the early 1990s, flooding nearly 150,000 acres of land, inundating a million trees, and destroying hundreds of homes. Buyouts by the federal government included the two tiny towns of Penn and Churchs Ferry, although some people still remain in the two communities.
Climate studies show that similar wet periods occurrec in the Devils Lake Basin many times during the past 2,000 years. The last time the lake overflowed was sometime prior to statehood in 1889.
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