For 18 years, North Dakota's Devils Lake has been flooding non-stop and turning farms into resorts—this year as badly as ever. The first installment in a three-part series.
The lake itself is not shocking. In fact, to eyes like mine, seeing it for the first time, it looks unremarkable, benign even—flat, blue, shallow around the edges. What's unnerving are the signs that the land beneath was dry not long ago. Every few miles along the highway, a cross-street leads straight into the blue, the yellow center lines almost beckoning drivers to follow and submerge. In the town of Minnewaukan, just past D Avenue, Main Street itself disappears into the water.
Around the corner, the playground in front of the local school awaits the water without defense. The football field across the street is already gone, transformed into a wetland with little mounds of grass where marsh birds nest. A wire cage still stands where the baseball diamond was, but on a Saturday afternoon in April, the only people near it are a man and a woman in rubber boots—fishing.
In 1992, this town in northeastern North Dakota was eight miles from the shore of Devils Lake. The school's classrooms looked onto the football field and, beyond that, a 60-acre alfalfa field and then pasture stretching to the horizon. At that time, citizens from around the region were forming a committee to preserve the vanishing lake. After several years of drought in the late 1980s, the waters appeared to be drying up.
Where wheat fields once were, now there are waves. And the roads—one after another leading into the water, disappearing under the silver surface.
"The Lord must have heard us," one of those citizens told me, for in 1993 began a spate of precipitation unlike anything the living had witnessed. What seemed to be the new normal was that it would snow all winter, and just as that began to melt it would begin raining all spring. In the worst years, falls were wet, too. Creeks and rivers flooded. Wetlands swelled. And the lake rose. It came up five and a half feet that first year, and another four the next.
The problem is that it has not stopped. Unlike with a river flood, this water does not naturally recede after a week or a month. It has nowhere to go: The lakebed is the result of a glacier that melted roughly 10,000 years ago, and its only natural outlet is at 1,458 feet above sea level. Since August 1992, the lake has risen more than 29 feet. That would be a remarkable increase in nearly any body of water, but in the context of North Dakota's famously flat topography it is extraordinary; here, the rising lake spreads across the land like water spilled on a table. At the lake's current size, a one-foot rise consumes more than 15,000 acres of surrounding land. In 19 years it has grown from roughly 69 square miles to 285, an area about the size of Fort Worth, Texas.
In recent years the lake has become so massive that it has begun a sort of self-perpetuation through its influence on the local weather. The body of water adds so much moisture to the lower atmosphere that it may well be increasing the amount of precipitation the area receives. And on summer nights in Minnewaukan you hardly need the A/C anymore. Nice for sleeping, perhaps, but the cooler air means less evaporation, more standing lake.
Researchers believe similar situations have happened in the past. The lake has reached its 1,458-foot natural outlet at least twice in the past four millennia, most recently about 2,000 ago, and it is now only seven feet from that mark. But our recorded history since European settlement has been a quiet time in terms of hydrologic activity, explains Gregg Wiche, director of the U.S. Geological Survey's North Dakota Water Science Center.
"Our understanding of that place has been that there weren't a lot of big floods," he explained. "So then during the last twenty years, this very wet period comes along. Researchers say, 'Jeez, this happened before,' but in our short experience here it hadn't. You asked me what the untold story here is. Well, the untold story is how variable and surprising nature can be. And now we're left to deal with this."
By "this" Wiche means the drowned football field, the disappearing roads, and building after building taken by the waters—the pieces that together comprise the world built up across this landscape over the past 125 years. With little way of knowing how vulnerable it could make them, settlers and their progeny assumed that the lake would more or less stay put—that a permanent society could safely be established on the land around it. Roads were laid and towns founded. Fields were cultivated, and acreage was bought, sold and passed down through generations. Lives were rooted in the dry land.
Today, as I explore the region around Minnewaukan, nearly everywhere I look I see the reluctant but unavoidable dissolution of that structure.
Rows of grain bins beginning to rust as the flat water seeps through their concrete floors. Houses on high spots stranded, abandoned, for the lake that surrounds them. Where wheat fields once were, now there are waves. And the roads—one after another leading into the water, disappearing under the silver surface. No matter how many I see, each one gives me a chill.
While visiting the area last spring I came across a rack of postcards produced by the local history center. Most were pleasant and nostalgic, with photographs of old steamboats and antique figurines, but there was one that stood out. The picture side of this card had a split frame showing two aerial views. One was a peaceful image of a road alongside the lake, sapphire water on the right and emerald forest on the left. The other was a frame almost entirely steel blue, the lake bisected by only a thin line of asphalt; on it, the tiny cars looked as helpless as insects. On the back of the card, the caption read:
SINCE SUMMER 1993 DEVILS LAKE WATERS HAVE BEEN STEADILY RISING — SOMETIMES ROARINGLY CRASHING, OTHER TIMES INSIDIOUSLY LAPPING — BUT ALWAYS RISING; TO MELT OUR ROADS; TO STRANGLE OUR TREES; TO STEEP AND TOPPLE OUR HOMES; TO VORACIOUSLY CLAIM AND DEVOUR ALL IN THEIR PATH!
At the time of my visit, the Minnewaukan City Council was wrestling with questions of survival: Should they try to scrape together their $2.7 million share of the $18 million that the Army Corps of Engineers said it would cost to build a ring dike around the town? Should they keep building walls of sandbags to protect individual houses in imminent danger of being flooded? Or should they just accept a watery grave and design a graceful exit for the community, handing over the title of county seat to a drier town like Maddock or Esmond? Over the past 20 years the town had lost more than 200 people. In April 2010, it had fewer than 300 residents. That Minnewaukan would dissolve completely felt almost inevitable, but no one wanted to say it out loud.
I bought one of the split-frame postcards to send back home, but was hard-pressed to figure out what to write on the back. "Wish you were here" seemed, for many reasons, inappropriate.
Jim and Diane Yri live on a farm two miles outside of Minnewaukan, across the road from where Jim grew up. For most of his life the farm belonged to another family, but beginning in 1976 it became effectively his own—rented, yes, but it was Jim who plowed and planted, fertilized and harvested. It was he who suffered the roller coaster ride of the impetuous agricultural economy.
The landowner was a widow who did not farm, and every year she would offer to sell the land to Jim. But every year, by the time he had shuffled his finances enough to be ready for a mortgage, the widow would change her mind. It got to be a sort of joke between Jim and Diane, and it never was resolved; eventually the widow just died. In 2001, after 25 years of waiting, Jim bought the land from her kids.
"The lake was like a giant excavator," Jim said. "The waves hit, pull back, and it's not clear water, it's brown. The waves out there are brown—that's land in them."
It's a fitting story for North Dakota. For more than a century, people have been coming here only to leave because of the bitter winters or the seemingly relentless winds, the loneliness they find in the vast stretches of land, or the annual challenge of coaxing a crop to life in a place that is so often too much of one thing—dry, hot, wet, cold. But the people who have driven their feet into the ground and grown roots that would allow them to turn and face the wind head-on, those are the people who built Minnewaukan and communities like it, these knobs of civilization that poke up throughout the prairie and die only when they have exhausted every other option. The regional identity is built on values of solidity, endurance, and permanence. Long-held, often multi-generational relationships with pieces of land are the most fundamental manifestation of that identity. For rural North Dakotans, place is not just a setting in which life transpires. Place—land—is life.
And so it makes sense that the non-farming widow would string the renter along for all those years—and that the renter would allow himself to be strung along. What doesn't make sense about the story, or perhaps perversely underscores that attachment North Dakotans have to their land, is that as the Yris were patiently waiting for their chance to buy the farm, the water around it was rising. Even in 1993, the first year of flooding, the lake edged into their pastures; when they signed the papers in 2001, the water had already been encroaching for eight years. The farm was 2,200 acres when Jim started there, and after purchasing it he and Diane added 650 acres by buying Jim's parents' place next door. In 2010 they were down to fewer than 700 acres of dry ground. They still owned the other 2,150 acres, but those were underwater.
Jim and Diane are in their fifties, he brawny and ruddy-faced, she slender with an air of mischief. Given the choice, they both prefer to deliver a sentence with a chuckle rather than with a serious look, even when they're explaining how their farm has been almost entirely swallowed. Like so many here, they tell their story with an air of incredulity, perhaps still in shock despite 18 years of flooding.
The lowlands on the south side of the farm were part of what people had always called the "lake bottom," but before 1993 it had been dry land—hay fields, pasture, even some crop acreage. Same with the areas people referred to as "banks." Most people considered these names just vestiges of the lake's glacial origins—artifacts, not omens. The farm's main house was built in 1904, and as far as anyone knew water had never come near it.
In 2002, the farmhouse was moved up the hill to drier land. Sitting in the living room there last spring, Jim told me, "I never in my wildest dreams thought in 20 years I'd be chased away, only to watch it all disappear even more. I never thought I'd see it actually become the bottom of a lake. And who knows when it will stop?"
The day before we spoke, there were winds Jim judged at 40 miles per hour. Coming across nearly eight miles of water, they sent waves to crash on what remains of the paddocks that front the farm's old, red barn. As he recounted this, a rare storm passed over him and his face darkened.
"It just chewed the shit out of the shoreline," he said with exasperation. "The lake was like a giant excavator: The waves hit, pull back, and it's not clear water, it's brown. The waves out there are brown—that's land in them."
The Yris are not alone. It's almost hard to find a farmer in the area who has not lost some land since the lake began rising. Jeff Frith of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board calculates that 164,000 acres of farmland have been lost across the region since 1993. Government payments are available to make up for flooded land that has been planted two out of the last four years, but for those acres that have gone underwater for the long term, there is no compensation. The burn is that landowners must continue paying taxes on their property or risk ceding ownership to the government. It's a gamble of sorts, since ownership really matters only if the land reverts to being land. For years most farmers continued to pay, but recently that has begun to shift. The cropland and pasture have become a distant memory.
NEXT: From farming to fishing—the rise of a new industry