Dangerously low just three years ago, Devils Lake has risen to its highest level this century, reclaiming land inch by inch in a slow-motion flood that has marooned farms and encircled homes built along the shore.
People who live in the small town of Minnewaukan, once about eight miles from the water, now have lakefront property. Entire tracts of land normally seeded with barley and wheat are under water.
“All you have to do is look down Main Street and you can see the lake,” said Minnewaukan librarian Cathy Burkhardsmeier.
The lake and the city of Devils Lake are a popular fishing and resort area, but now there’s more of it than anybody can handle.
The lake has no outlet. It is filled by rainwater and by runoff that trickles from a chain of small lakes nearby. It nearly dried up in the 1930s, and in 1992, it was so low that officials worried the fish would die.
But three years of above-normal precipitation and unusually cool weather raised the lake to just over 1,435 feet - its highest point this century.
“I’ve lived here for more than 40 years. For years, it was nothing but practically a slough,” said Hermoine Jorgenson of Minnewaukan. Now her daughter and son-in-law are living with her, their house near Fort Totten surrounded by water.
“I just hope we don’t get any rain in the next week or so,” she said.
The chances of the lake reaching its historical high - 1,438.4 feet above sea level, recorded in 1867 - by next year are one in 10, an analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey shows. Water that high would flood the city of Devils Lake, population 7,800.
“We’re one big thunderstorm away from a total disaster,” said Joe Belford, a Ramsey County commissioner.
North Dakota’s Water Commission has estimated at least $23 million in damage. More than 1 million acres of cropland in the Devils Lake basin, which includes all or part of eight counties, are flooded.
Wilton Webster is usually finished planting his 4,000-acre farm near Churchs Ferry by May 25. But this year, he said, “We’ve done more work this spring than it takes to put in a crop - pumping for six weeks, night and day, three pumps going most of the time.”
He also built a two-mile dike to hold off the water.
“We keep getting in deeper and deeper,” he said.
In Lawton, a town of about 60 people, the water came within 6 inches of going over the city’s dike. To the southwest in Minnewaukan, a town of about 400, the lake has crept right to the banks of the sewer lagoon. The Army Corps of Engineers has been shoring up the lagoon to keep waste water from flowing into the lake.
Roads on the Devils Lake Indian Reservation are closed or washed out. Tribal chairman Elmer White said some tribal members who require kidney dialysis or other major medical treatment now have to be flown to larger cities because the roads are unsafe for travel. At least five families have been evacuated.
“A lake that started two years ago at 44,000 acres and is now at 72,000 acres - that’s a lot of water in two years,” said James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who toured the basin Thursday. “Our concern is where you’re going to be two years from now.”
The state would like to build both an inlet on the lake, to raise the level during droughts with water from the Missouri River, and an outlet to drain excess water into the nearby Sheyenne River.
The Army Corps of Engineers earlier looked into building an outlet, but decided it would be too expensive - at least $20 million.
But Marshall Moore, the state transportation commissioner, said that if the lake hits 1,440 feet, the cost of road repairs would exceed the cost of building an outlet.
Witt promised to brief White House officials next week on the situation.
“If I was a farmer or I lived on the edge of the lake,” he said, “I’d want solutions, too.”