Devils Lake Basin Overview

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Learn the Basics of Devils Lake Basin

Devils Lake Basin

 

The Devils Lake Basin is a 3,810-square-mile (mi2) closed basin in the Red River of the North (Red River) Basin, in North Dakota. About 3,320 mi2 of the total 3,810 mi2 is tributary to Devils Lake; the remainder is tributary to Stump Lake. The Devils Lake Basin contributes to the Red River Basin only when the level of Devils Lake is greater than 1,458 feet (ft) above sea level (asl). At an elevation of about 1,447 ft asl, Devils Lake begins to spill into Stump Lake; and at an elevation of about 1,458 ft asl, the combined lakes begin to spill through Tolna Coulee into the Sheyenne River (a tributary of the Red River). From 1867 to 2006, the lake level has fluctuated between a maximum of 1,449.2 ft asl in 2006 and a minimum of 1,400.9 ft asl in 1940. In June 2009, the lake level was 1,450.7 ft asl, about 28.1 ft higher than the level recorded in February 1993.

Devils Lake Basin

The original survey of the Stump Lake area was conducted between 1881 and 1883. At that time, Stump Lake was between 1,420 and 1,425 ft asl, about 10 to 15 ft higher than its August 1, 2000, level of 1,409.8 ft asl. When Devils Lake reached 1,447.1 ft asl in the summer of 1999, water was just beginning to trickle into Stump Lake. Therefore, considering its small drainage area, for Stump Lake to be above 1,420 ft asl between 1881 and 1883, a substantial amount of water probably flowed from Devils Lake into Stump Lake sometime before 1880. Joseph Nicollet, who explored the Devils Lake area in 1839, described the area between Devils Lake and Stump Lake as big deep coulees (Bray and Bray, 1976). Nicollet stated "These are dry at the moment but in time of high water seem to receive water from Devil's Lake." This information indicates water flowed from Devils Lake to Stump Lake sometime between 1820 and 1840.

According to the North Dakota State Water Commission's Devils Lake Quick Facts, the Devils Lake flooding that began in the 1990's and continues to the present [2008], "has destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses and inundated thousands of acres of productive farmland. The State of North Dakota and the U.S. Government have spent over $450 million dollars in flood mitigation efforts including moving roads, rail and power lines, and building dikes." The State of North Dakota has constructed an outlet to allow water from Devils Lake to flow into the Sheyenne River. This outlet is further described in the State Water Commission's Outlet Quick Facts and the State Water Commission's outlet webpage.

 

 

 

Overview

The Devils Lake Basin is a 3,810-square-mile subbasin in the Red River of the North Basin. At an elevation of about 1,447 feet above sea level, Devils Lake begins to spill into Stump Lake; and at an elevation of about 1,459 feet above sea level, the combined lakes begin to spill through Tolna Coulee into the Sheyenne River.

Since the end of glaciation about 10,000 years ago, Devils Lake has fluctuated between spilling and being dry. Research by the North Dakota Geological Survey indicates Devils Lake has overflowed into the Sheyenne River at least twice during the past 4,000 years and has spilled into the Stump Lakes several times (Bluemle, 1991; Murphy and others, 1997). John Bluemle, North Dakota State Geologist, concluded the natural condition for Devils Lake is either rising or falling, and the lake should not be expected to remain at any elevation for a long period of time.

The potential for a catastrophic spill from the natural outlet to the Sheyenne River poses a threat for downstream interests. If Devils Lake reaches the spill elevation (about 1,459 feet above sea level), the contributing drainage area of the Sheyenne River near Cooperstown, North Dakota, will quadruple (from 1,270 square miles to 5,070 square miles) because the entire Devils Lake Basin then would contribute flow to the Sheyenne River. Also, water in Stump Lake (which becomes part of Devils Lake at an elevation of about 1,447 feet above sea level) is of much poorer quality than water in western Devils Lake, and significant volumes of water spilling from the natural outlet would cause serious downstream water-quality problems.

 

Devils Lake Basin

 

Devils Lake, a Terminal Lake

About 5 percent of the landmass of North America drains into terminal lakes, which are lakes that are located at the lowest point within a closed drainage basin. Closed drainage basins have no outlet to the oceans. The advance and retreat of continental glaciers shaped the landscape of all of North Dakota east and north of the Missouri River. Thousands of closed drainage basins were formed in North Dakota as a result of glaciation. Terminal lakes located in these closed drainage basins range in size from a few acres to more than 50,000 acres.

Since the end of glaciation about 10,000 years ago, Devils Lake has fluctuated between spilling and being dry. Research by the North Dakota Geological Survey indicates Devils Lake has overflowed into the Sheyenne River at least twice during the past 4,000 years and has spilled into the Stump Lakes several times (Bluemle, 1991; Murphy and others, 1997). John Bluemle, North Dakota State Geologist, concluded the natural condition for Devils Lake is either rising or falling, and the lake should not be expected to remain at any elevation for a long period of time.

Devil Lake Basin