Hydrology of the Devils Lake Basin

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Learn about Hydrology of the Devils Lkae Basin

Prehistoric Water Level

Since glaciation, the water level of Devils Lake has fluctuated from about 1,454 feet above sea level, the natural spill elevation of the lake, to about 1,400 feet above sea level (Aronow, 1957). According to Bluemle (1981), the elevation of Devils Lake was more than 1,440 feet above sea level 8,500 years before present. Callender (1968, p. 261) made various chemical analyses of sediment samples from Devils Lake to provide a lake-level chronology for the past 6,500 years. Callender concluded that

Devils Lake Basin Geology

The lake was dry during the last part of the Hypsithermal (6,500 years before present) interval. The level rose and then declined several times between 6,000 and 2,500 years before present, after which a peat was deposited in Creel Bay approximately 1,340 years ago. Several more lake-level fluctuations culminated in a very saline, low-water stage 500 years before present, when oak trees grew on the dry surface sediment of East Stump Lake. The level subsequently rose until 1800 A.D., declined to a low-water stage in 1940 A.D., rose until 1951 A.D., and steadily declined from that time to the present [1968]. Comparison of the Devils Lake chronology with those from other regions indicates that major climatic changes which caused significant fluctuations in the lake level may have extended beyond the northern Great Plains region."

Aronow (1955, 1957) analyzed abandoned shorelines, water-deposited sand and gravel deposits containing buried soils and vertebrate remains, and rooted stumps uncovered by receding water around Stump Lake. In general, Aronow's interpretation (1955, 1957) of water-level fluctuations is similar to Callender's (1968), although some differences do exist. Aronow indicated that a lowering of water levels of lakes in the Devils Lake Basin occurred during a dry period in the 15th and 16th centuries, as evidence by the growth of burr oak in Stump Lake. According to Brooks (1951), this dry period occurred throughout most of western North America. Following this dry period, there was a general rise in water levels from the mid-1500's until the mid- to late 1800's. This period of rising water levels commonly is referred to as the Little Ice Age. In a more recent study, Bluemle (1988) used radiocarbon dates of soils and concluded that Devils Lake overflowed into Stump Lake in the last 1,800 years.

Other aquifers in the Devils Lake area include the Starkweather aquifer, the McVille aquifer, the Warwick aquifer, the Tokio aquifer, and the Sheyenne River aquifer. A total of more than 1 million acre-feet of ground water is stored in all of these aquifers (Trapp, 1968; Downey, 1973; Randich, 1977; Hutchinson and Klausing, 1980).

In summary, all of these studies indicate that large and frequent water-level fluctuations of 20 to 40 feet occur every few hundred years. A rising or declining water level seems to be a more normal condition for Devils Lake than a stable water level.


Historic Water Level

Hydrology Devils Lake Basin

No documented records of water levels are available before 1867. However, Upham (1895, p. 595) indicated that the water level of Devils Lake was 1,441 feet above sea level in 1830. He based this water level on a large, dense stand of timber that grew at and above 1,441 feet above sea level. Below 1,441 feet above sea level, only scattered trees and brush existed. Captain H. H. Heerman informed Upham that, based on tree-ring chronology, the largest tree cut below 1,441 feet above sea level was 57 years old in 1887. Thus, Upham (1895, p. 595) concluded that in 1830 (57 years before 1887) the water level of Devils Lake was 1,441 feet above sea level.

Water levels of Devils Lake were recorded sporadically from 1867 to 1901 when the U.S. Geological Survey established a gage at Devils Lake. In 1867 the water level was 1,438 feet above sea level and the lake had a surface area of about 140 square miles. From 1867 to 1940, the water level of Devils Lake declined almost continuously until it reached a recorded low of 1,400.9 feet above sea level and the lake was a shallow brackish body of water that had a surface area of about 10.2 square miles. From 1940 to 1956, the water level generally rose. From 1956 to 1968, the water level generally declined. From 1968 to 1987, the water level generally rose until it reached a peak of 1,428.8 feet above sea level. At the peak in 1987, Devils Lake had a surface area of about 94 square miles. From 1987 to 1991, the water level of Devils Lake declined rapidly to 1,423.5 feet above sea level. The lake began a rising phase in 1993. 





Hydrology Devils Lake Basin

Shallow Ground Water

Shallow ground water in the Devils Lake area occurs mainly in lake deposits and glacial till. A detailed examination of all available ground-water data indicates that the shallow ground water moves along various routes at differing velocities. Shallow ground water in the lake deposits and glacial till moves slowly (less than 0.01 inch per year) toward the many potholes and lakes throughout the basin. A large percentage of this ground water never reaches Devils Lake.

Most of the shallow ground water in the lake deposits and glacial till is returned to the atmosphere as transpiration by plants or evaporation from potholes. Shallow ground water in the lake deposits and glacial till interacts with Devils Lake only in the area immediately surrounding Devils Lake.








Hydrology Devils Lake Basin

Hydrology Devils Lake Basin

Deep Ground Water

On the highlands away from Devils Lake, ground water that is not returned to the atmosphere by transpiration or evaporation moves slowly downward through the lake deposits and glacial till and into the Spiritwood aquifer system. Water in the Spiritwood aquifer system moves slowly toward Devils Lake, Lake Irvine, or the Sheyenne River. Ground-water flow velocities in the Spiritwood aquifer system range from 1 to 12 inches per year (Pusc, 1993).

Near Devils Lake, ground water moves slowly upward from the Spiritwood aquifer system through the overlying lake deposits, glacial till, and lake sediments into Devils Lake. During years of high runoff, when Devils Lake rises, the water level in the Spiritwood aquifer system in the Devils Lake area also rises. Conversely, when Devils Lake declines, the water level in the Spiritwood aquifer system declines. Water-level fluctuations in the Spiritwood aquifer system are a combined result of: (1) Water-level fluctuations in the regional discharge area (Devils Lake), (2) recharge from precipitation, and (3) the increase or decrease in weight that a changing lake level applies to the confined Spiritwood aquifer system (Randich, 1977; Hutchinson and Klausing, 1980; Pusc, 1993).

On the basis of ground-water-level response to water-level fluctuations of Devils Lake, the Spiritwood aquifer system in the Devils Lake area has been divided into five flow segments: (1) the Spiritwood aquifer near Minnewaukan; (2) the Spiritwood aquifer near Lake Irvine; (3 the Spiritwood aquifer near Devils Lake; (4) the Spiritwood aquifer near Warwick; and (5) the Spiritwood aquifer near the Sheyenne River (Randich, 1977; Hutchinson and Klausing, 1980; Pusc, 1993).






Water Balance

A water-balance model can be used to explain how the water level of Devils Lake responds to the interaction of the various components of the hydrologic cycle. The water-balance model is

inflow = outflow + storage change

Surface-water inflow to Devils Lake occurs in three ways:

  1. Inflow through Big Coulee (the major tributary to Devils Lake),
  2. Inflow through Channel A, and
  3. Inflow from small ungaged tributaries draining areas adjacent to Devils Lake.

Available data indicate that ground water in the immediate area moves toward Devils Lake from all directions and enters the lake by movement through the lake sediments.

Outflow: Evaporation from the lake surface occurs when energy is used to loosen bonds that hold water molecules together. Energy used in evaporation comes from heat stored in the water, warm air passing over the water, and, most importantly, absorbed solar radiation.

Storage: Storage change is computed from area-capacity tables that list the volume of water in storage and the lake-surface area for Devils Lake water levels.


Generalized Hydrologic Model

The interaction of the various components of the hydrologic cycle,

inflow = outflow + storage change

results in month-to-month and year-to-year fluctuations in water levels. On the basis of recorded water levels, a generalized annual hydrologic model can be outlined as follows:

  1. In late fall or early winter, the water level in Devils Lake declines to a minimum. After freezeup and throughout the winter, the water level rises slightly because of ground-water inflow. Surface-water inflow usually is zero, and precipitation and evaporation usually are minor. Ground-water inflow is minor throughout the year.
  2. In March through May, snowmelt and rain produce runoff from the basin into Devils Lake. The maximum water level occurs in April or May in drier years and in June or July in wetter years. In March through May, inflow exceeds outflow and the water level rises.
  3. Sometime in April through July, outflow exceeds inflow and the water level begins to decline. The minimum water level occurs in late fall or early winter. Then the cycle is repeated.

Available hydrologic and climatologic data indicate that the generalized annual hydrologic model does not apply in some years. For example, in the dry years of 1934, 1935, and 1937, inflow during March through May did not exceed outflow, and the water level of Devils Lake actually declined at a time when it usually rises. (President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave a speech at Devils Lake in 1934 that addressed the drought.)

Analysis of historic water-level fluctuations indicates that the water level in 1932, 1954, and 1971 differed significantly from the generalized annual hydrologic model.

View a graph of gage height to compare the water level of Devils Lake for the last 2 years to the generalized annual hydrologic model.


Water-Balance Variability

In most years, the largest percentage of inflow to Devils Lake is from precipitation falling on the lake surface. Only during years when floods occur on tributaries to Devils Lake is surface-water inflow greater than precipitation falling on the lake surface. Large annual variability of inflow from precipitation occurs for two reasons:

  1. Precipitation can vary greatly from year to year, and
  2. The surface area of Devils Lake increases as water levels rise and decreases as water levels decline.

The effect that changes in lake-surface area have on inflow from precipitation can best be illustrated by the following example.

  • In 1988, 12.84 inches of precipitation fell on Devils Lake when the surface area of the lake was 55,500 acres (1,427.5 feet above sea level). This precipitation produced an inflow of 59,400 acre-feet. If 12.84 inches of precipitation fell on Devils Lake when the surface area of the lake was 41,000 acres (1,421 feet above sea level), the precipitation would produce an inflow of only 43,900 acre-feet.

In general, the water level of Devils Lake fluctuates in response to climatic variability, but the hydrologic characteristics of the Devils Lake Basin distort the hydrologic response. Potholes and lakes that eventually drain into Devils Lake have the ability to retain a significant part of the runoff, especially in the drier years. Thus, the annual surface-water inflow varies greatly from year to year.

Ground-water inflow is only a small percentage of total inflow but is relatively constant from year to year. During periods of no surface-water inflow and no precipitation, ground-water inflow is the major inflow component. However, ground-water inflow is not sufficient to maintain the water level of Devils Lake.

Evaporation is the only mechanism that removes water from Devils Lake. Annual evaporation varies from year to year, although not as much as surface-water inflow.


Water Quality

Devils Lake water-quality issues that have been addressed by various studies include dissolved-solids, dissolved sulfate, mercury, and phosphorus concentrations in the lake. 


Dissolved-Solids Concentration

Surface-water quality, especially dissolved-solids concentrations, in the Devils Lake area is affected by many factors, including, but not limited to, climate, topography, and geology. Climate affects surface-water quality through variations in precipitation and temperature. For example, warm, dry periods generally cause an increase in lake evaporation and, therefore, an increase in dissolved-solids concentrations. Wet periods generally cause an increase in streamflow and lake levels and, therefore, a decrease in dissolved-solids concentrations. Topography and geology affect surface-water quality by influencing the amount and rate of runoff and the degree of soil-water interaction (Lent and Zainhofsky, 1995).

The report, "Climatology, Hydrology, and Simulation of an Emergency Outlet, Devils Lake Basin, North Dakota" by Wiche and other (2000) also addresses dissolved-solids concentrations in Devils Lake. See it in the Publication tab.


Dissolved Sulfate Concentration

The report, "Spatial and Temporal Variability of Dissolved Sulfate in Devils Lake, North Dakota, 1998" by Sether (1999) and others addresses dissolved sulfate concentrations in Devils Lake. See it in the Publication tab.


Phosphorus Concentration

In 1984, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a reconnaissance report to address the rising lake level of Devils Lake. One of the water-quality issues identified was the nutrient concentration of the lake. The report states that, "Devils Lake is extremely rich in nutrients, especially phosphorus, which promote the production of algae and other aquatic plants. . . . The phosphorus concentration fluctuates on a seasonal basis because it relates to the growth cycles of aquatic plants. Phosphorus concentration does not appear to be related to lake level fluctuation."


Mercury Levels

Mercury is a highly toxic element that occurs both naturally and as an introduced contaminant in the environment. Eating contaminated fish and wildlife exposes people and fish-eating wildlife to the most toxic form of mercury, methlymercury. Therefore, anglers are encouraged to monitor fish advisories, which are accessible through the Environmental Protection Agency's National Listing of Fish and Wildlife Consumption Advisories. For more information on mercury in the environment, see the following U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheets:


1906 - 1907 Water Quality

In 1906, the Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Chemistry analyzed a sample of water from Devils Lake. A 1908 report, "A Study of Physical and Biological Conditions, with a View to the Acclimatization of Fish (Pope, 1908)," states the following results for that sample.

Hydrology Devils Lake Basin

The report states that "The water of Devils Lake possesses many qualities that render it unsuitable for drinking and for engine boilers, etc. It is reported that in former years, before the level of the lake dropped to its present plane, it was quite generally used for drinking, but at present this is not the case, though cattle are said to drink freely of it. The writer found the water to be slightly brackish, though not disagreeable, and when used for cleansing purposes it was satisfactory, though soap will not produce a lather with it."

Another analysis of water was done in 1907 with the following results.

Hydrology Devils Lake Basin