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Runaway Devils Lake

In the wake of climate change, a North Dakota lake swells without regard for people or property and with no easy fix in sight

Douglas Larson

Garrison Diversion: A Relic

Devils Lake’s escalating salinity after 1899, coupled with shrinking water levels, ended what was once a prodigious commercial fishery. Between about 1880 and 1905, many thousands of northern pike, Esox lucius, were harvested annually and shipped by railroad to major midwestern and eastern cities. But even yellow perch, Perca flavescens, stocked in the lake as a replacement species, soon disappeared. By 1924, the lake’s only surviving fish species was the salt-tolerant brook stickleback, Culaea inconstans. Species diversity overall was greatly reduced, comprising largely organisms able to tolerate brackish waters.

Receding, increasingly saline waters had other unfortunate consequences. The Minnie H., a side-wheel steamer that carried passengers and freight between lakeside settlements and farms beginning in 1883, was retired in 1907 as shoals and other underwater hazards made steamboat travel ever more risky. Additionally, the shallow lake had become highly polluted with untreated sewage and agricultural wastes by the 1940s, allowing algae and macrophytes, aquatic plants, to proliferate. Decomposing plant material became a major source of recycled nutrients and rotting organic matter. Seemingly limitless swarms of emergent insects, principally midge flies, frequently drove lakeside residents and visitors indoors. The lake’s degraded, briny, foul-smelling condition gave it an unpleasant reputation as a body of water unfit for most aquatic life or for humans.

As part of the Congressional Flood Control Act of 1944, the Garrison Diversion Project called for diverting Missouri River water through a system of canals and intermittent canal reservoirs to irrigate drought-stricken farmlands in eastern North Dakota. The project included a permanent feeder canal into Devils Lake to “deepen, flush, and desalinate the lake for recreation.” Water diverted through the canal raised the lake from 427 meters, its lowest-recorded elevation, to 434.5 meters, which is marked as the “proposed level under Missouri diversion” in Figure 2. This would increase surface area from about 35 to 170 square kilometers, and volume from about 36,000 to 643,000 acre-feet. Assuming that 180,000 acre-feet of water with a TDS concentration of 800 mg/L or less was diverted to Devils Lake annually, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that 10 to 12 years would be required to reduce the lake’s TDS concentration from 25,000 to 900 mg/L.

Garrison Diversion, scornfully called the “last of the Dust Bowl relics,” was extremely unpopular with environmentalists and the Canadian government. In 1973, Canada sent the U.S. State Department a diplomatic note requesting an “immediate stop” to Garrison’s construction. It declared that the project would violate the 1909 Boundary Waters Treaty by polluting rivers flowing into Canada, via the Red River and the Souris River, the latter located outside of the Devils Lake Basin. Despite formidable opposition, construction continued until the 1980s when the project was shelved due to funding and environmental constraints. Since then, nature has more than compensated for the project’s grand design for Devils Lake.

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