Devils Lake Gets Its Due

As recently as 1993, when residents of little Minnewaukan, N.D., went fishing for walleye, they drove past farms and range land to the shores of Devils Lake, eight miles away. But now, after six years of precipitation averaging 25 percent above normal, the lake has come to them. Rising an astounding 24 feet on the virtually level prairie, it has quadrupled in area to 194 square miles, swallowing 70,000 acres of farmland and devastating nearly 500 homes. The creeping waters have been kept away from others by an elaborate breastwork of levees, so that once fashionable lakefront houses in the nearby town of Devils Lake now have views of a wall of dirt. "It's a flood that never goes away," says the town's mayor, Fred Bott.

North Dakotans are experiencing the pitfalls of living in "prairie pothole" country. Here rainfall doesn't run neatly into streams and rivers; it collects in low spots scooped out by glaciers, forming lakes that shrink and grow from year to year--and on climatic cycles measured in centuries. Scientists fear that North Dakota has entered a wet cycle that could outlast a dozen El Ninos; if it keeps up, the lake will soon reach the highest level in 1,000 years. For Margerie Wood, who remembers hunting foxes with her husband in the dry lake bed after they moved to the area in 1958, all this scientific abstraction hit home on May 17. That was the day the local fire department burned down the house where she had raised five children before it crumbled into the water and became a hazard. "My daughters cried and cried," says Wood. "Even the firemen cried."

There are only three ways to deal with this disaster, and the government has already tried two of them. Residents can get out of the way; in an unusual action, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is assisting lakeside residents to move before their homes flood. They can defend their towns as best they can; the tab for dikes and infrastructure repairs has already exceeded $250 million. Or the government could attempt to lower the lake by pumping its salty water out to the Sheyenne River. No way, says Robert Oleson of Canada's Transboundary Waters Office--the Sheyenne empties into the Red River, where higher salt levels could disrupt ecosystems all the way to Hudson Bay. "Our foreign minister," he says, "has raised this on numerous occasions with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This isn't an issue we take lightly."

The issue is also not taken lightly by the local Sioux Indians, who are already annoyed because their name for the body of water--Spirit Lake--was callously rendered Devils Lake by 19th-century settlers. According to Tino White, managing editor of the Dakotah News, the Sioux believe the waters are undergoing an ancient pattern of "rising and cleansing" that shouldn't be interrupted with levees and berms: "A lot of us feel the lake is angry because it wants to go where it used to be." The lake isn't the only one getting angry: after six years of high water, many North Dakotans think it's time that someone figures out a feasible plan to stop Devils Lake. "The Army Corps of Engineers has delayed and studied and analyzed and wrung its hands for years," complains Gov. Ed Schafer. "Meanwhile the costs of flooding continue to rise." The corps will announce a new battle plan this week. In the meantime, locals will be keeping a watchful eye on Devils Lake, hoping that it doesn't come any closer.