A decade after Devils Lake

Little has changed in the decade since North Dakota opened an outlet, sending salty water north to Manitoba


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MINNEWAUKAN, N.D. -- Sherri Thompson stands amid the weeds and boulders of the temporary levee built to protect her small town from the slow devastation of Devils Lake.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/07/2015 (2600 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

MINNEWAUKAN, N.D. — Sherri Thompson stands amid the weeds and boulders of the temporary levee built to protect her small town from the slow devastation of Devils Lake.

Off in the distance is a gravel road shortcut to the nearby state park. It’s deep under water. Where the town’s 4H building once stood is now a scrubby island. A few metres behind Thompson, a lonely basketball hoop pokes out of the murky water. It’s impossible to imagine two decades ago the lake at Thompson’s feet was 12 kilometres away, barely visible.

“There are still people who haven’t been here for years and come back and say ‘Wow. Unreal,’ ” said Thompson, the town’s manager and owner of the local hair salon. “I still have friends who don’t like to drive from Minnewaukan to Devils Lake because there’s water on both sides of the highway.”

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Areas of Devils Lake, North Dakota where water levels have risen so high they've taken over land, and forced the need to raise Highway 19.

The tiny town was nearly swamped in 2011, when the lake was at its peak and the controversial outlet located nearby couldn’t drain away enough water. That spring, before the army built the long dike and a second outlet was opened, Devils Lake threatened to slowly swallow the town of 200 people, inch by inch.

Now, after a couple of mercifully dry years and two outlets pumping millions of cubic feet of water out of the lake and into the Red River watershed, things are stable in Minnewaukan, even promising.

This summer marks a decade since North Dakota opened the first of two outlets, the west one near Minnewaukan. It sent Devils Lake’s dirty, salty water into a whole other watershed: the Sheyenne River that drains into the Red and then heads north to Manitoba. The move enraged then-premier Gary Doer and sparked lawsuits and cross-border acrimony. Manitoba feared foreign biota such as fish parasites would enter the Red, more nutrients would damage Lake Winnipeg and the move violated the principles of watershed co-operation.

MELISSA TAIT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sherri Thompson on the dyke in Minnewaukan built to protect the town from the rising water levels of Devil's Lake. To the right is a former basketball court and football field for the nearby by school.

Since then, though, the outlets’ effects have been modest; not as good as North Dakotans hoped and not as bad as Manitobans feared. The lake’s level has gone down a little — roughly three feet — but it’s still massive, and at the mercy of any wet, snowy weather. Thousands of acres of once-prime farm land are still under water and folks along the Sheyenne are still cranky about all the extra water coming their way.

Meanwhile, Manitoba’s waters haven’t suffered catastrophe, though sulphate levels sometimes spike.

Now, Manitoba and North Dakota are starting to talk about what’s next long-term, at what point the lake will stabilize and the outlets won’t be needed as an emergency measure.

This will be the fourth summer both outlets have been open and running — typically on and off in the spring, full throttle through the summer and on and off again in the fall.

In the spring, the Sheyenne is often too high to take on water from Devils Lake. In the fall, sulphate levels, especially around the higher-capacity east outlet, are the problem, said Jon Kelsch of the North Dakota State Water Commission.

Sulphates, which give drinking water a salty, bitter taste, on the Sheyenne can’t exceed 750 milligrams per litre. If they do, generally the outlets must close.

Still, Nicole Armstrong, the director of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship’s water science and management branch, said the province is worried about sulphates flowing into Manitoba via the Red River.

A water-quality objective caps sulphates in the Red at Emerson at 250 milligrams per litre, and that cap has been exceeded a few times in recent summers. There were three exceedances in 2014, and three already so far this summer, especially when flows in the Red were lower, with less water to dilute the Devils lake salts.


Short of raising a polite stink at cross-border watershed or International Joint Commission meetings, there’s not much Manitoba can do to force North Dakota to limit the amount of sulphates heading north.

But, Armstrong says, water officials from Manitoba and North Dakota have an open, consultative relationship and are working together on sulphates and several other watershed issues, such as nutrients.

Currently, Devils Lake stands at 1,451 feet above sea level, only three feet lower than its all-time high of 1,454.4 in 2011. But North Dakota water officials have already begun thinking about a long-term plan for the outlets — at what point lake levels decline enough that the outlets, even just the east one where water quality is particularly bad, are closed.

Armstrong suggested a lake level of 1,450 feet elevation might be a good starting point for conversations, especially if spiking sulphate levels start causing real problems for drinking water in the few rural municipalities close to the border that get their water from the Red.

Meanwhile, people who live around the lake are grateful for a few years of stability. Many homes and farmstead have been relocated or permanently abandoned — a painful process. Roads have been rebuilt, often as dikes. New boating infrastructure is in place. Farmers are still frustrated more acreage isn’t available to seed. But the huge lake has become an excellent fishing hot spot, with boats crowding the waters and families casting from shore along the watery highway between Minnewaukan and the town of Devils Lake.

“We kind of like the lake where it is, because of the tourism,” said Thompson. “Will it ever go down in our lifetime? I don’t think it will.”

The massive lake, still roughly 200,000 acres, doesn’t really seem much smaller to Kelsch despite the three-foot drop. And, most people in the area watch the forecast with fear. Two extreme wet years could put the lake right back where is was in 2011, at risk of a catastrophic overflow.

“Mother Nature is still in charge,” said Kelsch.


Updated on Monday, July 6, 2015 9:41 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of sulphate

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