Devils Lake has been in flood stage since 1993, and that leaves those who help manage the swollen lake playing catch-up much of the time.
A National Weather Service report issued in January predicted that Devils Lake could rise by as much as four feet due to their analysis that “a wet summer and fall, along with high winter snowpack has set the stage for near record runoff into the lakes.”
Fortunately for those in the Lake Region - especially farmers - that prediction did not pan out.
Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resources Board, indicated that a lack of precipitation and other factors contributed to the relatively mild increase in the lake’s level.
“We really did luck out this spring,” Frith said. “The initial flood forecast that came out late January talked about the possibility of a three to four foot rise. We ended up with about a foot-and-a-half, about half of what they expected.”
That’s still a significant amount of intake, according to Frith.
“A foot-and-a-half is still a lot of water that came into the lake - about 250,000 acre feet - but we should be able to move that this summer with a combination of the outlet running and evaporation,” he said.
Frith also pointed out that the less-than-expected lake rise was due more to gradual runoff from the winter’s snowpack than the ongoing drought that has gripped the state.
Still, Devils Lake has been in flood stage since 1993, and that leaves those who help manage the swollen lake playing catch-up much of the time.
“We’re not getting as much water off the lake as we’d like to,” Frith said. “We wanted to try to gain some ground for potential flooding next spring, and the fact is that we’re still 30 feet higher than we were back in (19)93.”
Another issue with lowering lake levels is the pumps that remove water from the lake via outlets that move the water into the Sheyenne River are not working at full capacity.
The drought has caused the Sheyenne to flow more slowly than usual, increasing its sulfate concentration. That is a concern for residents in places like Valley City and West Fargo, which rely on the Sheyenne for their municipal water supplies.
Frith explained in more detail the interaction between Devils Lake and the Sheyenne River via the outlets.
“The pumps have to stay within a water quality constraint of the upper Sheyenne, which is 150 parts per million in the sulfate category,” Frith said. “They tried to blend the west end outlet with the east end outlet, but the east has a higher sulfate concentration. So when there’s little or no flow in the Sheyenne like we’re seeing in this dry year, the natural sulfate levels in that river tend to go up.
“They keep (sulfates) down for human consumption downstream.”
Though the outlets aren’t operating at their full capabilities, Devils Lake has avoided significant flooding that could have brought the lake’s volume back to 2011 levels. That and the fact that the outlets are still removing water from the lake means that while the situation isn’t perfect, major flooding issues have been avoided this year.
“The outlets are capable of 600 cubic feet per second,” Frith said. “They’re currently operating right around 330. They’re working at a little over half capacity, (but) they’re always moving water.”
He reported that the east end outlet may not be fully operational “the rest of the fall.”