DEVILS LAKE — The worst of North Dakota’s long, wet agricultural disaster is over, at least for now. But the battle against Devils Lake-area flooding, which has caused an estimated $1 billion in economic losses in just the past six years, is far from finished, farmers and water officials say.
“We’ve taken 4.5 feet off (Devils Lake), and that gives us a little breathing space,” says Jeff Frith, manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board. “But we know we can’t let up.”
Frith was among the participants in a recent tour of Devils Lake flooding that was organized by the North Dakota Water Education Foundation, a nonprofit corporation that represents a variety of areas and interests across the state. The tour drew about 55 people, primarily farmers, ranchers, local politicians and water officials.
Heavy rains during the previous night made some of the rural roads in the affected area too sloppy to use, limiting the extent of the tour. Even so, the tour illustrated what area agriculturalists and water officials already knew: the problem isn’t as bad as it was, thanks in part to pumping Devils Lake-area water into two nearby rivers. Evaporation has helped, too, as did relatively light snowfall in the winter of 2015 to ’16.
Devils Lake elevation, which rose to 1,454.3 feet at its peak in July 2011, has fallen to slightly less than 1,450 feet now.
Flooding damage also peaked in 2011, when rising waters inflicted a $194 million economic hit, including a $57.6 million loss to the crop sector, according to a North Dakota State University Extension Service estimate.
This year, in contrast, flooding will cost farmers an estimated $36.2 million in reduced crop sales, with a total projected loss in business activity of $133.7 million, according to NDSU.
This year’s projected loss will push the total economic hit since 2011 over $1 billion, NDSU numbers show.
Farmers and ranchers are hurt in many ways. They lose pasture, hayland and cropland. They battle increased salinity, which hurt yields. And the loss of bridges and roads makes some plantable fields difficult or impossible to reach.
An estimated 10,000 acres of farmland were lost by one-foot rise in Devils Lake when the lake was near its peak, so the drop in the lake potentially returns thousands of acres to cultivation. Putting a number to the regained acres is difficult, however, because debris must be removed from the land before it can be cropped again.
Restoring the land to its former level of productivity is slowing further because extended inundation can kill the organisms that help growing crops take in nutrients from the soil. Obtaining enough phosphorus is particularly important, says Joel Ransom, NDSU Extension agronomist.
Reestablishing the microorganisms isn’t particularly difficult, but producers need a strategy to do it and the process takes time, he says.
Devils Lake, which shares its name with the area’s largest town, was formed thousands of years ago after glacial Lake Agassiz receded. The giant lakebed left behind is virtually a closed basin: it has no natural outlet. As Frith and others note, Devils Lake isn’t a true closed basin. At an extraordinarily high level, it will overflow into the Sheyenne River Valley — but that hasn’t happened in about 2,000 years.
The lake began rising during a wet cycle that began in the early 1990s. Above-average precipitation caused the lake’s surface area to more than triple between 1993 and 2011, inundating slightly more than 167,070 acres, or about 261 square miles, at its peak.
Devils Lake flooding isn’t like most other flooding. There are no torrents of water erupting from rivers, no massive walls of water crashing into shorelines. Flooding here has been slow and, until recently, relentless — a steady, inch-by-inch, foot-by-foot increase in water that claims roads, fields and farmsteads which once had just enough elevation to escape flooding.
In response, federal, state and local governments have spent about $1.5 billion to raise roads and bridges, upgrade levees and relocate families and sections of communities.
The state of North Dakota has built two flood control structures on the lake. They pump water from the Devils Lake Basin into the Sheyenne River; even at its peak, the lake hadn’t risen high enough for water to run naturally into the Sheyenne.
By all accounts, pumping water into the Sheyenne has contributed to the decline in Devils Lake elevation — and is also exacerbating problems elsewhere.
Devils Lake water in the Sheyenne means the river runs bank full, or close to it, more often, increasing bank erosion. The additional water also makes the Sheyenne more likely to overflow, hurting adjacent fields and pastures, when the Sheyenne Basin receives heavy rains.
Frith says the pumping, while good for the Devils Lake Basin, has created problems along the Sheyenne. But he says the drop in Devils Lake elevation now allows the pumping to be “less aggressive,” reducing future potential for those problems.
There’s also concern about how reduced water levels will affect the Devils Lake area’s tourism industry, which expanded during the lake’s long rise.
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Some resorts are already suffering from reduced lake access and higher operating costs, says Bill Wood, owner of Eastbay Campground, on Devils Lake’s east shore.
Determining a level at which the lake can remain stable is essential, he says.
“All this fluctuation isn’t good for anyone,” he says.
Regaining lost ground
But the drop in Devils Lake elevation has been a huge benefit for many area farmers, including Dan Webster, a Penn, N.D., producer.
“The lake going down is a big plus for us,” he says.
This spring, he planted about 700 acres that had been under water when the lake was at its peak. He could have planted even more recovered acres if he hadn’t run out of time to remove debris that accumulated on fields after it was submerged.
“The clean-up process takes a lot of time,” he says. “It takes a couple of years to get the land back to where production is good. I hope we’re not doing it all for nothing.”
Light snowfall in recent years, particularly this past winter, has been crucial to the lake’s drop, and heavier snow winters could push water back up again, he says.
‘Neighbors in disaster’
The area’s long wet cycle has hurt farmers near, but outside, the Devils Lake Basin, too.
One of the hardest-hit areas is the McHugh Slough Drainage Area of Nelson County, east of Devils Lake. About 125 square miles of Nelson County are inundated, with 38 of them in the drainage area, located northwest of Michigan, N.D. The drainage area covers land in Nelson, Walsh and Ramsey counties and includes Hove Slough and Horseshoe Lake in Walsh and McHugh Slough near Michigan, according to information presented during the Water Education Foundation tour.
Of the 12 farmsteads that could be inhabited in the area when the wet cycle began, only two are occupied now, officials say.
Though flooding in the drainage area hasn’t received nearly as much public attention as Devils Lake flooding, “We’re neighbors in disaster,” says Ben Varnson, chairman of the Nelson County Water Resource District and a Lakota farmer. Lakota is Nelson County’s seat.
Elected leaders and water officials understand the problem and have worked well together to address it, he says.
The $4.1 million Michigan Spillway Control Project, financed by Nelson County residents and the State Water Commission, is pumping water from the area into the Forest River. As a result, an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 acres that had been lost to flooding have been reclaimed, officials say.
The project also allows access to fields, protects wells and reduces damage to roads and fields, he says.
Heavy rains this summer in parts of the drainage area have hampered efforts to reclaim inundated farmland, Varnson says.
“That (above-average precipitation) is just part of our environment,” he says.
Parts of the Devils Lake Basin have received heavy rains this summer, too, but relatively dry conditions elsewhere in the Basin allow the lake to keep dropping, Frith says.
“There’s slow improvement. It’s getting better,” he says. “But we can’t just assume that’s going to continue. We need to keep working at it.”