Explore other articles on Devils Lake:

Download the 2010 Devils Lake Flood Facts here. (produced by the ND State Water Commission)

A Rising Prairie Sea: Featured Lake-Devils Lake, ND. (written by Douglas W. Larson)

Living With Water: Section 2: When Water Overwhelms. (A Forum Communications Special Project)

 Devils Lake 2011 Flood Update & Infrastructure Protection. (Presented to the 29th Annual Red River Basin Land & Water International Summit Conference)

Related Publications/Stories from various newspapers from April 2011.

Economic Impact of the Devils Lake Flood. (From 2011)

Various Documents from the Joint Water Basin Resource Board. (Website link)

Dream of Water System Over 100 Years Old. (Newspaper clipping)

The Devils Lake Flood Story

Devils Lake North Dakota is a “closed basin” lake (one with no river inlet or outlet) within the Red River-Hudson Bay drainage system. The region’s surface runoff flows through many small coulees and lakes and is collected by Devils Lake and adjacent Stump Lake. There it remains until it evaporates or enters the ground water table.



Since its inception during the glacier period, Devils Lake has been either rising or falling over the last 10,000 years. Geologic evidence shows that the water level in Devils Lake has fluctuated widely from completely dry (about 1400 feet mean sea level (ftmsl)) to overflowing into the Sheyenne River (about 1459 feet msl). The level of Devils Lake dropped significantly through the great drought of the 1930’s and finally reached a historical low of about 1402 feet (only 2 feet deep) in 1940. Since that time the lake has been rising in a somewhat erratic fashion, with years of decline and increase.


Even though long-term variations in the climate are ultimately the reason Devils Lake rises or falls, the short term fluctuations do not always appear to correlate well with obvious climatic trends. One reason for this may relate to the runoff pattern. Several smaller lakes are found immediately upstream from Devils Lake and these lakes serve to delay runoff to Devils Lake. Another Reason may relate to interaction with the groundwater system. It was first suggested in the late 1970’s that groundwater flows may account for much of the water entering or leaving Devils Lake. If the Spiritwood Aquifer, which directly underlies Devils Lake, is in contact with the floor of the lake, water can move from the aquifer to the lake or vice versa.


Although the drainage of wetlands certainly affects the modern landscape, these and other cultural practices are thought to be insignificant with respect to the overall changes in the level of Devils Lake.



Since settlement of the Basin in the mid 1800’s, the ultimate desire of the residents has been to stabilize theHighway 1 near Stump Lake, ND water level in Devils Lake. A lack of stabilization has meant a loss of commercial navigation, recreation, and fish kills during low lake levels, as well as damage to roads, infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, and agriculture production during high levels.


Inlet-outlet stabilization projects have been proposed but never built for Devils Lake. This has been due primarily to legal, financial, environmental, international treaty, and water quality constraints, along with the inability of the projects to meet the U.S. Army Corp. of Engineers’ required standards of cost effectiveness, traditionally applied to river systems.


Water quality and quantity have been the main issues related to moving water out of Devils Lake through an outlet. The amount of dissolved solids (minerals) in Devils Lake is high compared to the Sheyenne and Red River Systems.


In addition, there is concern that the release of water from Devils Lake would increase spring flooding and cause erosion of the river banks. Fortunately, these issues can be resolved. The outlet structure could be operated in such a way as to limit the maximum flow and prevent major erosion. Furthermore, water could be released from Devils Lake during times when the Sheyenne could accept it, July-February as an example.


On an International level, the Canadian Government is concerned about the introduction of non-native fish species and biota that may damage their fishing industry. They are especially concerned about the striped bass which the ND Game & Fish Dept. introduced into Devils Lake in the early 1980’s. Subsequent netting studies, however, have shown that the striped bass were not able to reproduce in Devils Lake’s conditions and have died out. In addition, the transfer water out of Devils Lake through a manmade structure would have to comply with the Boundary Waters Treaty Act of 1909.



Above average fall rains in 1993 and heavy spring snowfall in 1994 caused Devils Lake to rise 5 feet in only six months. The lake has steadily risen each year since, over 24 feet in total. 81,000 acres of adjacent land, much of it privately owned, has been flooded and the lake now covers 120,000 -125,000 acres.


Geologists that have studied the history of Devils Lake predict that the current wet weather pattern could last as long as another 100 years. If nothing is done to move water out of the Devils Lake basin, the Lake Region can expect the following chronological impacts.


1447 ftmsl Lake Level as of August 1999
1447.5 ftmsl East Bay water begins to seep into Stump Lake
1452 ftmsl

Equalization of water between the two lakes raises Stump Lake 40ft.

* Causes the loss of another 58,000 acres of land
* Moves an additional 200 homes and businesses
* Destroys 1.6 million trees or 5,800 acres of forest
* Inundates a national refuge with nesting habitat
* Floods ND Highways 1, 2, 19, 20 and the Woods-Rutten Road

1460 ftmsl Stump Lake will naturally overflow and spill out uncontrolled into the Sheyenne River. At this point, total surface area of Devils Lake will be approximately 300,000 acres.

The Lake Region will have lost:

* 118,000 acres of more land
* Millions of trees
* All transportation routes into and out of Devils Lake by highway and rail
* More than 1,000 structures
* Protection of the City unless the dike is raised an additional 10-15 feet


Should Devils Lake reach its natural outlet, water will flow down the Sheyenne River at a rate of up to 12,500 cubic feet per second (cfs) depending on the conditions. This is 20 times the capacity of the river channel at its most restricted areas and comparable to the worst flood flows in the spring. Needless to say, this could have a devastating impact on the communities downstream.



Bank ErosionThe community of Devils Lake supports the “three-legged stool” approach being pursued by both Federal and State leaders.


#1. The first leg of the stool is to provide for, through government incentives, the storage of water in the upper basin. ND Wetland Trust is helping finance wetland restorations on Conservation Reserve Program tracts through incentive payments to landowners. Similarly, the ND State Water Commission runs the Available Storage Acres Program (ASAP). Further, the US Fish & Wildlife Service has completed in the past few years, ten wetland development projects in the upper basin. Both of these programs are helping to reduce the amount of inflow to Devils Lake and thereby slowing its rise.


#2. The second leg of the stool consists of raising and rebuilding the local infrastructure. To date, about 40 miles of road have been raised, the levee protecting the city has been lengthened and widened three separate times, and 220 homes and/or businesses have been moved away from the lake and relocated to higher property. In total, from 1993-1998 better than 300 million dollars has been spent on infrastructure raises and flood recovery efforts in the Devils Lake area.


#3. The third and final leg of the stool is to construct an emergency outlet for Devils Lake. Several alternative locations for such an outlet have been proposed, each with their pros and cons.


Devils Lake knows it faces significant financial, legal, and political hurdles to get an outlet. However, for the long-term future of our community and the health of the state’s economy as a whole, it is essential that a timely and permanent solution be found to the Devils Lake flooding situation.


Produced by:
Devils Lake Area Chamber of Commerce/Tourism Committee


Technical Assistance by:
Ramsey County Emergency Management Agency
ND State Water Commission
ND Dept. of Transportation
ND Forest Service