Gravel roads and a lot of dust. Forgotten roads rising from the water. Abandoned farmsteads sit as archipelagoes. And in some places, farmland, not seen in twenty-five years, may be dry by fall. A bus tour of the Devils Lake Basin two weeks ago showed how much had changed. The tour was sponsored by the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board and the North Dakota Water Education Foundation.

Gravel roads and a lot of dust.  Forgotten roads rising from the water.  Abandoned farmsteads sit as archipelagoes.  And in some places, farmland, not seen in twenty-five years, may be dry by fall.  A bus tour of the Devils Lake Basin two weeks ago showed how much had changed.  The tour was sponsored by the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board and the North Dakota Water Education Foundation.

Given the fate of the Minnie H ferry and its dock, dry times and floods are ephemeral in the history of the basin.  The effect, of course, on the generation living in the region when the change happens, from dry to flood in this case, is devastating.  Residents of the basin know this first hand.  They know that there is no outflow from Devils Lake, and they know that what water flows into it comes largely from sub-basins and that when they go dry, so does the lake eventually.  The water that flows into the lake is governed by weather patterns and cycles.

The first stop of the day was east of Devils Lake, along Old HWY 2, north of Doyon, at the Fenster Slough, a sub-basin of Devils Lake.  The landscape has changed dramatically in the last ten years, and especially since the real inundation.  Old HWY 2 itself was barely kept above the rising waters, and was in fact lost to rising waters periodically.  A knoll of trees was once an island in a vast shallow sea.  Now, there is more land than water due to natural evaporation, drainage, and pumping.  But there is still more than twenty feet of water than in 1992.

All the land for about twenty miles north of Fenster Slough toward Edmore, ultimately drains into Devils Lake, or once did, before the dikes.  Dikes work both ways:  They keep the water in Devils Lake, but prevent the natural inflow of water.  Now, all the water that would flow overland into the lake is pumped in, paid for by the city of Devils Lake.    The pumping stations around the lake can handle eight and a half inches of rain.  Even though the waters have receded over the past decade, there are still roads to the east, especially in Nelson County, that are still under water.  

Devils Lake reached its peak elevation of 1454 feet in 2011, according to the North Dakota State Water Commission (NDSWC), and now is less than 1449 feet.  In 2011, the lake covered more than 208,000 acres, and now covers about 160,000.  Each foot  of change corresponds, says the NDSWC, to about an 8,500 acres.  The last time the lake was above 1440 feet was 1830.  The lake hit 1426 feet in the early 1900s, but by 1940, had fallen to 1401 feet, and then began to rise again hitting 1426 about 1975.  It filled like a bathtub starting in 1992.

The Tolna Coulee in the east, the only natural outflow of the lake, has a natural dam called the Tolna Plug.  Water level has to get above 1458 for the lake to flow naturally into the Sheyenne River over the plug.  The Tolna Coulee is the outlet of Stump Lake, which is fed by Devils Lake when the water is above 1446 feet through the Jerusalem Coulee.  There is an old post office somewhere under the water near the inlet of the Tolna Coulee.  The state allowed a foot removed from the plug to let some water through.  That foot was determined to be the time of statehood and Russian thistle seeds were the marker.  

Here, at the end of Stump Lake, is only the control structure, a flood control project limiting the outflow from Stump Lake to no more than 3,000 cubic feet per second (cfs).

The real outflow into the Tolna Coulee starts at a massive pumping station, at a purported cost of $500,000 a month to operate, at East Devils Lake.  The water is pumped from there five and a half miles through an eight-foot pipe to the outfall above the coulee and beyond the plug.  The maximum capacity is 350cfs.

The Devils Lake Basin incorporates some 3,800 square miles.  What flows into it does not flow out.  There is also a lot of flat land that just holds the “sheetwater” until there’s room to flow to the lake.  There have been proposals, beginning with the Garrison Diversion in the 1950s, but none completed.  The Garrison Diversion to the Missouri River was proposed as a means of stabilizing the lake’s level, to give certainty (a word often heard on the tour), but times changed and it was never finished.  It has been proposed to pump more into the Tolna Coulee, but downstream communities all the way to Winnipeg object for reasons of flooding fears (Valley City) and water quality concerns because of the high sulfate levels (Valley City to Fargo to Winnipeg).

The sulfates never precipitate out, nor sediment to the bottom of a waterway, but always remain dissolved.  They must be treated by special means involving a mesh making it more expensive for municipalities to treat water.  The maximum amount allowed into the Sheyenne is 750ppm.  Those downstream municipalities would like to see a lower concentration than that.

Nobody downstream is ever happy about the extra water in the system.  

Nelson County Road 22 is one of three remaining north-south county roads; the others are still under water.  North of HWY 2, to the west of Nelson County 22, lies the McHugh Slough, to the east is Lake Laretta, near Michigan.  It took twenty years of working and fighting the various government agencies, said two Rubin Township officials, but as of June 20, 2018, there was wet ground where just weeks before and for twenty-five years there’d been four feet of water.  The Township was reopening old drainages and the water had flowed east where it converged with water from Lake Laretta into the Michigan Spillway.  More than 28,000 acres of surface water was moved.  

Fish and wildlife agencies were worried that crucial wetlands would be ruined, but instead potholes that had dried decades before were refilled.  The spillway has a 50cfs maximum pumping capacity, but runs at 20cfs now.  The water goes north and east into the Forest River.  “And the farmers and ranchers aren’t happy about it,” said a Nelson County official.  “They claim cattle can’t cross the river now to reach pasture.  Nobody is ever happy about the water.”

The big question, the one word that kept popping up during the tour was “certainty,” and the lack thereof.  One foot of elevation lost can open lots of land, and bust many dreams.