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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

A Thorny Dilemma

2012-01LarsonF8.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAs Devils Lake approaches the size of Lake Minnewaukan, swamping human livelihoods and communities in the process, North Dakota’s Congressional delegation, its governor, and other public officials down to the level of city leaders and below find themselves on the horns of a dilemma. While thousands of people in the Devils Lake region have been gripped by an appropriate sense of desperation bordering on near-panic, their fellow North Dakotans living downstream of the lake in the Sheyenne and Red River valleys are also troubled. In a region already deluged by a wetter climate, the thought of augmenting record-breaking river flows with water discharged from Devils Lake is disturbing. Many undoubtedly remember the spring of 1997, when flood flows in the Red River essentially wiped out the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota’s third-largest city of about 53,000 residents. With peak flows measured at 137,000 cfs, and the river’s stage exceeding 54 feet—26 feet above flood stage and 4 feet higher than the all-time record posted in 1897—the river burst through protective dikes and completely inundated the city, forcing nearly 50,000 people to evacuate. Seventy-five percent of the city’s homes and more than 300 businesses were flooded, many damaged beyond repair. Fires burned uncontrollably downtown, gutting three square blocks. Damages reached $3 billion.

People living downstream of Devils Lake seemingly have the advantage in terms of political clout. Their numbers total nearly 200,000, representing almost a third of the state’s population. Most reside in the major eastern communities of Valley City, West Fargo, Fargo and Grand Forks, the latter two the homes of North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota, respectively. Yet, as someone who grew up in North Dakota, I have no doubt that “downstreamers” sympathize wholeheartedly with those being forced from their homes, farms and historic towns in the Devils Lake region.

In defending their position, outlet critics contend that roughly half of the wetlands in the Devils Lake Basin have been drained for agriculture over the past several decades. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the basin’s original wetlands totaled at least 162,000 hectares (16.6 percent of the basin area), although the time frame for “original” is uncertain. Approximately half of these remain. Vast wetlands once captured and absorbed much of the runoff water from spring snowmelt and heavy summer rainstorms. In a study of the basin’s wetland depressions, both drained and undrained, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that the depressions had a maximum water-storage capacity of 657,000 acre-feet. Water-retention rates for 2-year and 100-year-frequency runoff events were 72 percent (116,000 acre-feet) and 41 percent (435,000 acre-feet), respectively. Outlet opponents believe that efforts should first be made to restore wetlands and plug their drainages instead of building outlets. Studies indicate that restoring 60,000 acres of drained wetlands could provide storage volumes of between 156,000 and 294,000 acre-feet. But restoring wetlands could take years, probably decades to achieve. In any case, one outlet is already operating and construction of others is underway.

But what would happen if no outlets were built and the lake began overflowing through Tolna Coulee, its natural outlet? By then, the expanded lake would have consumed an additional 300 square kilometers of lakeside property, further submerging homes, farms, towns and infrastructure. For those downstream, the U.S. Geological Survey has painted an even more ominous picture: Great torrents of escaping lake water would erode the coulee floor down to elevation 441 meters—2 meters lower than the lake’s current surface elevation—releasing up to 2 million acre-feet of water uncontrollably—or about 40 percent of the lake’s entire volume. Like a tsunami, outflows of between 12,000 and 16,000 cfs would thunder down the Sheyenne River Valley for days, possibly washing out Baldhill Dam, and drowning towns and farms en route to the Red River Valley and Canada.

With the crisis unfolding, nature appears to have the upper hand, at least for now. Humans, seeking a technical fix at this late hour, may have lost control of their environment, a lesson about the importance of preemptive action to forestall or reverse an impending environmental disaster. This may be particularly true now that unpredictable climate change appears likely across the globe. Having lost the proactive advantage, those working to solve the problem at Devils Lake have been reduced to a rearguard strategy. That is a position that may become familiar to people around the world in years to come.


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