The North Dakota Water Board organized a tour in late June of the Devils Lake Basin (see “After the Flood,” Devils Lake Journal, July 5, 2018). All throughout the day and the trip the one word that kept popping up was “certainty.” Can there ever be certainty? It would be nice if there was some certainty. Will anything ever be done so there is certainty about the lake's level? It would be good if the resort owner and farmers had certainty. For the present and future it appears the fed's report is the only certainty there is.
“The federal government did a study,” said Jim Yri, “now this is a fact, they did a study and spent $1.5 million on it. The study was on Devils Lake. Their conclusion was that depending on whether it’s drier or wetter, the lake could rise of fall. I kid you not, $1.5 million.” Jim and his wife Diane are the owners of West Bay Resort, near Minnewaukan. For them and other resort owners on the lake the only certainty is that the lake will rise or fall. The Yris are, like other resort owners around the lake, farmers but with much of their valuable farmland covered by twenty feet of water.
The North Dakota Water Board organized a tour in late June of the Devils Lake Basin (see “After the Flood,” Devils Lake Journal, July 5, 2018). All throughout the day and the trip the one word that kept popping up was “certainty.” Can there ever be certainty? It would be nice if there was some certainty. Will anything ever be done so there is certainty about the lake’s level? It would be good if the resort owner and farmers had certainty. For the present and future it appears the fed’s report is the only certainty there is.
Bill Wood, of East Bay Resort, believes the certainty is the lake will drop as it has so many other times. “It may take ten or fifteen years,” he said, “but the lake will go back down. I’m trying to discourage my kids from taking this resort over.”
Bill hosted the lunch for the June tour. Before lunch began, he gave a tour of his resort. Stopping at one spot that day, he pointed to the expanse of water. “That was all hay field and pasture in the late 1960s,” he said.
“The lake and tourism are a huge resource right now,” he said on the phone. “But there is never any certainty. It’s all dependent on Mother Nature. Maybe less pumping can be done and try to maintain the lake level, but then that affects the farmers on the west side of the lake who’d really like to have their land back.”
Farmers on the west side have lost. Some more than seventy-five percent of their land. Some lost all. Any who wish to keep that land for farming—hoping for the lake to drop—still pay property tax on it.
The Yris still farm, but far less than they did. “We lost about 2,000 acres of land,” said Jim. “That’s the Minnewaukan Flats out there. We used to have pasture and fields out there. There was one old farmer who lost everything, didn’t get anything for it, and I’m certain it was the stress of that that put him in the grave.”
“Does this lake provide jobs and money to this area?” asked Diane Yri rhetorically. “Fishing and tourism provide a lot of money, probably more than farming used to. People like walleye. There are a lot of people with a lot of money who come here just to fish. They stay days and weeks. Why do they keep pumping the lake to lower it? Why not fix a level and leave it, and then the various organizations work together to make this area a real destination.”
The level of Devils Lake has been a subject of worry and postulation since Edward Edson Heerman started sailing the Minnie H across Devils Lake in 1883, and in 1889, Capt. Heerman (as he was known) sought to turn either the Mouse or Sheyenne rivers into Devils Lake. He gave up because railroads had taken over and there wasn’t the interest or the willing money to undertake such projects. Fast forward several decades to the Garrison Diversion Project.
“The idea was to keep the lake at roughly 1425 feet, and provide flood control and irrigation along the way,” said Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board. “The idea was water from the Missouri would be pumped east into Devils Lake, and then down the Sheyenne into the Red River. North Dakota is a semi-arid region, and reliable water has always been a concern, especially in the Red River. There were days in the Dirty Thirties when the river had no flow. Can you imagine today what would happen in Fargo if the Red went dry again?”
When Capt. Heerman was musing about diverting the Mouse and Sheyenne rivers, discussion was already underway about diverting the Missouri. The book, “North Dakota Water: A Century of Challenge 1889-2000,” has a history of various proposals to bring the Missouri east through a series of canals that would ultimately take Missouri water all the way to Lake Superior (your humble writer was lent this book by Mr. Frith). One proposal would have taken the Missouri through the Missouri Cocteau, a divide between east and west, and allowed gravity to move the water east. This was the 1890s, and the technology was available, but ultimately the cost outweighed the benefit.
Then, in 1922, the idea was bruited again. This time the plan called for a pipeline that would bring water through the Cocteau, into the headwaters of the James and Sheyenne rivers, and finally into Devils Lake. This would have raised the declining level of the lake and eventually setting it at roughly 1425 feet. The Garrison Diversion didn’t begin until 1968, twenty-one years after the Garrison Dam was begun and fifteen after it was completed.
“A lot of fertile land was lost to the impoundment,” said Frith, “and a lot of people, farmers and Natives, were displaced with no real compensation. Flood control was primary in constructing the dam, and by the time it was in place folks downstream didn’t really care about the rest of the project, which included plans for the Diversion. And landowners, well, they could’ve been treated much better. If they had, maybe it would’ve been finished.”
“The Garrison Project would have maintained the lake at, what?, 1425 feet,” said Bill Wood. “So that’s lower than now, but it would’ve been steady.”
There was another potential complication, said Wood, and that is the lake level behind Garrison Dam affecting the aquifer. “A geologist did a study,” he said, “that suggested because of the grade, water is flowing down from Lake Sakakawea through the aquifer. When Devils Lake began rising there were many uncapped wells that became artesian. They’re all underwater now, but it would be interesting to know if water is still flowing from them. If so, it could mean Devils Lake is being filled from underneath.”
Lakeview Resort owners John and Maria Erickstadt don’t really think much about certainty either. “We sleep at night,” said John. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the future.
“But what needs to happen is that someone needs to pick a lake level and keep it there. The Garrison Diversion would supply fresh water to the lake and eventually flush the lake. The biota is the same in all the water. It won’t affect Fargo or Winnipeg, and Fargo wants fresh Missouri water. And if they’re really worried about fish parasites and that, run the water under ultraviolet lighting. Choose a level and then pay the farmers who will lose deeded land—pay them fairly—for their loss.”
Fargo, Grand Forks, Winnipeg, and towns along the Sheyenne are adamant in refusing water directly from Devils Lake because of the sulfates. “But flushing the lake is a one-time event,” said Frith. “After that there’d be nothing but water from the Missouri and a steady flow coming from Devils Lake to those and other towns’ water treatment plants.
“I’m pretty cynical about the Diversion ever being completed, but there still is one, very small, bit of optimism in me that says it will. Someday.”
“It’s taken us years to get where we are with this resort,” said Diane Yri. “These people who come here are our friends, and we’ve lost a few, three just this summer. They become almost like family and it hurts just as badly when they pass. A level should be set because there are a lot of people on the lake now who make a living with tourism, and it’s big. Bigger than you think. Bigger than the City of Devils Lake thinks. We’ll just have to see what happens.”