Droughts and Flooding in Devils Lake Basin

Science Center Objects

Learn about Past Droughts and Flooding that has Occured in the Devils Lake Basin.

Droughts in the Devils Lake Basin

Although high lake levels are causing problems at the present time, low lake levels have been a problem in the past. The low water levels can result from variability in surface-water inflow, precipitation, lake-surface area, ground-water inflow, and evaporation.

The Devils Lake fishery begain diminishing in 1888 and prompted a government study by the Bureau of Fisheries in 1907. Excessive evaporation that resulted in the "loss of vast spawning and feeding grounds" for fish was one of the causes attributed to the disappearance of fish. At that time, the lake level was falling. According to Pope (1908),

     By these figures it will be observed that Devils Lake rose 5 feet between 1880 and 1883, attaining its highest level, 1,439.08 feet, in the latter year. Since then it has diminished steadily, dropping 9 feet in the succeeding six years and 1 ½ feet since the "dry year,"             1889. The lake at present is at its lowest, and it is doubtful whether any maximum seasonal fluctuation can cause it to attain the level of 1889. It is a matter of common knowledge that bays and tributaries navigated by steamers in1883 are now entirely desiccated or       closed to navigation. At that time the main body of the lake was reported to have a depth of 35 feet. Soundings made in August 1907, by the Bureau of Fisheries, show a maximum depth of only 25 feet.

Because the recreational and fishery values of Devils Lake are closely associated with the water-level fluctuations, various plans were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in the late 1930's and early 1940's, to divert water from the Missouri River to stabilize the water level, but no lake stabilization plans were implemented.

One notable instance of drought that caused low water levels was in the 1930's, during the Great Depression. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Devils Lake to address the drought conditions and mentioned possible plans to divert Missouri River water.

The text of his speech is given below.

Presidents Speech
Informal Remarks of the President at Devils Lake, North Dakota, page 2, August 7, 1934; SA32; First Carbon Files; 1820; PPF; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY 12538; Retrieved from the National Archives and Records Administration, URL: http://www.nara.gov/, July 25, 2002
Presidents Speech
Informal Remarks of the President at Devils Lake, North Dakota, page 2, August 7, 1934; SA32; First Carbon Files; 1820; PPF; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY 12538; Retrieved from the National Archives and Records Administration, URL: http://www.nara.gov/, July 25, 2002
Presidents Speech
Informal Remarks of the President at Devils Lake, North Dakota, page 2, August 7, 1934; SA32; First Carbon Files; 1820; PPF; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library (NLR), 4079 Albany Post Road, Hyde Park, NY 12538; Retrieved from the National Archives and Records Administration, URL: http://www.nara.gov/, July 25, 2002

Flooding in the Devils Lake Basin

Since 1993, rising lake levels have caused a great deal of damage in the Devils Lake Basin and have resulted in studies of the basin climatology and hydrology as well as the feasibility of an outlet.

By 2000, the rising waters of Devils Lake had caused flood damages exceeding $300 million and triggered development of future flood-control options to prevent further infrastructure damage and reduce the risk of an uncontrolled spill of Devils Lake into the Sheyenne River. Construction of an emergency outlet from the west end of Devils Lake to the Sheyenne River is one flood-control option being considered.

See more information in the Publications tab.