Spirit Lake Rising: Living With a Neverending Flood

As a North Dakota lake destroys entire towns, Native Americans accept the phenomenon, but others fight for their lives

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[This article is the third in a three-part series about North Dakota's Devils Lake, which has been flooding continuously for 18 years, destroying entire towns in the process. To return to part one, click here, or click here for part two.]

The original inhabitants of the region surrounding North Dakota's Devils Lake are the Dakota, once formally called the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux. Their name for this place and its people is Mni Wakan—source of the more familiar Anglicization "Minnewaukan." Somewhere along the line it was translated to Devil's Lake, but in fact the name means Spirit Lake, a distinction that underscores the difference in attitude toward the water on these shores.

Today roughly 6,200 people, most of them official tribal members, live on a reservation that borders the lake's south shore. Former tribal chairman Skip Longie explained that the tribe's relationship to the lake has always been one of respect and, as I understand it, deference. Their canon involves tales of gods clashing over the waters and a spirit being that inhabits the lake. Children might play around the water's edge, but swimming and boating are mostly unheard of.

Regarding the water's more mundane act of rising these past two decades, people here are blasé. The lake comes up, the lake goes down—that's what it does.

"It's nothing that we're going to get too overly excited about," Skip told me, shrugging his shoulders. "It's something that's going to take place one way or the other. Granted, it will make us uncomfortable for a little bit, maybe for my lifetime. But it'll get better—it's just water. For Indian people—or at least the majority of Indian people who believe in cultural ways—this is just material things that can all be replaced. It's nothing earth-shattering."

Lorraine Grey Bear, a slight, sharp woman who teaches Dakota language and culture at the college, concurs. She explained that before white settlers arrived, the region's Dakota people used Devils Lake as a place to gather for the winter, leaving in spring to spend the rest of the year hunting elsewhere. But after a treaty with the American government in 1867, they were settled here permanently. She acknowledges the inconvenience for those who have had to move their homes, Indian and non-Indian alike, but she doesn't show much sympathy.

"People camped in the lake bottom—I mean, what do you expect? This lake has a history of flooding. It's a prehistoric lake, and every hundred years or so it rises. That's a natural occurrence, and when that happens our people would just move away. And we came back when it came down. It's a matter of living in harmony with nature."

Of course that impermanent relationship to the lake is not an option in the minds of modern North Dakota natives like those in the towns of Churchs Ferry and Minnewaukan, many of whom have had to abandon their homes to the rising waters. Instead, for the past 18 years, the majority of the region's people have focused on finding ways to fight back the water, at a combined cost of $1 billion. (Since the Spirit Lake people have been permanently settled here as well, they don't have the option of transience, either. The tribe has its own set of public works projects to hold back the lake, and have moved forty houses to higher ground since the flooding began.)

In the 1980s, the region's largest municipality, Devils Lake (population 6,700), built an eight-mile dike along the city's shore to the height of 1,445 feet. It has been raised twice since, and is in the process of being raised another six and a half feet to 1,466 feet, at which height the lake will cease rising and instead spill out a natural outlet. The endeavor will require 1 billion yards of dirt. Several hills in the county have already been flattened for this purpose.

By far the most complicated, contentious attempt to combat the lake's rise has been the building of a manmade outlet. This would allow water to be pumped out of the lake and into the Sheyenne River, 14 miles south, which runs into the Red River of the North, and eventually across the Canada border and into Lake Winnipeg. From afar the concept of running a stream of lake water into these increasingly large bodies of water sounds benign, but virtually every stakeholder outside the Devils Lake region is opposed to it. To begin with, people downstream on the Sheyenne and in the Red River Valley have their own seasonal flood problems, which are raging right now; they certainly don't want more water to deal with. What's more, the lake's water is both saline and polluted with agricultural runoff. Many downstream fear the impact that diverting the lake's overflow would have on their water quality and riparian ecology. This and the presence of invasive species of fish have made the outlet a subject of dispute with Canada that has spanned three presidential administrations and invokes the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909.

Even within the Devils Lake region there is opposition, albeit from just a few bold voices. When there was talk of building an outlet that would have run water through the east side of the Spirit Lake reservation, Lorraine Grey Bear spoke out against it for the flooding it would have brought to her people. Today she regrets not speaking out against the outlet in any place or form.

"What is really in my heart is that the lake should be left alone," she told me. "The concept that my people live by is called Mitakuye Owasin. It means basically that we are all related—the bird nation, water nation, star nation, red nation. So we look after each other, we don't harm one another. We don't go out and kill all the bears just because one person had the stupidity to go into bear country and got killed. We let things happen naturally. We practice respect."

Despite the varied opposition, the idea of a manmade outlet has plodded along for the duration of the flood. In 1997, the Army Corps of Engineers began drawing plans for an outlet that would address the various concerns of downstream stakeholders and cost $185 million. North Dakota balked at the plan, both because of what it considered unnecessary provisions for remediating water quality and because of the portion of the price tag it was expected to cover, more than $80 million.

The state instead built its own, smaller outlet on the lake's west end, a project that has run in fits and starts. It began pumping in 2005 at a rate of 100 cubic feet per second, and in 2010 it increased to 250 cubic feet per second. It remains a bit of a joke. Run for 170 days last year, it removed only 63,000 acre-feet of water, for a total of 4.3 inches off the lake.


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Then came the winter of 2011. Devils Lake lay frozen at its highest level ever recorded in winter. There was record snowfall across North Dakota, and the deepest snowpack in the state was near Churchs Ferry—41 inches in mid-January. The National Weather Service predicted that the spring thaw would bring to the lake an influx of water three times the average.

In mid-April, snow remained on the forecast. But with the thaw already begun, the lake started hitting a new record level every day—1454.2 feet at last view. The NWS is predicting below-normal temperatures and above-average rainfall in the area through June, a forecast that further darkens the outlook for the lake's rise this year. The latest calculations are that there is an 80 percent chance the lake will rise two feet this year, a 40 percent chance it will rise three feet, and a 10 percent chance it will rise nearly four feet, to 1455.9—just two feet shy of overflowing.

Suddenly, the pace of response has quickened. The town of Minnewaukan is being relocated, one and a half miles to the northwest. In the meantime, a temporary dike will be built around the school for protection until its future site, in what people call "the new Minnewaukan," is ready in 2012. And after 14 years on the drawing board, the outlet on the lake's east end is expected to be under construction this summer and operational in 2012. Combined with the existing outlet on the west side of the lake, at full capacity the two will be able to draw off just one foot of water a year. "Our politicians act like we should be doing backflips over this," Paul Christensen, of Churchs Ferry, said. "In reality, all it does is slow down this death march we're on."

In Churchs Ferry, where emergency response ended more than a decade ago, the waters are fast encroaching. Of the 15 families left in Howard Blegen's rural neighborhood, eleven have left in the past year; most likely the rest will be gone by July. The post office in town closed last September, and the local bar, the last remaining business aside from Paul Christensen's auto shop, shut down in January. The century-old church had held on, its 30-member congregation composed of people who had left town during the FEMA buyout of 1999 but returned every Sunday for more than a decade. Then, in late March, the church council voted to give up.

Paul recalls the final Sunday. A lot of tears were shed, he said, with people looking to the minister to answer: Why? It was an especially pretty day, and after the service everybody stood in the parking lot just hanging their heads. "This is it, they were saying. This is the end." Paul and the others have built a temporary dike to save the building until early summer, when they can hold an auction to sell off the building's contents. After that, they will dismantle the dike, let the waters in, and collect flood insurance.

Paul himself is staying put, at least for now. His house is higher than the church, and he still has plenty of business thanks to the loyal customer base he has built over the past 25 years. He suspects he'll make it another year, but after that he's unsure. It's possible his business will die, as those local customers move too far out of town to make the trip back to his shop. It's also possible the weight of it all may finally get him.

The other night he was bowling with Howard Blegen, who has bought a new house in a nearby town and is preparing to abandon his home in the coming weeks. "I looked at him," Paul said, "and I told him, it's real hard to have a conversation with anyone anymore about anything but this stupid water. It's just taken over everybody's life."

This article was written with the support of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. Images: Lisa M. Hamilton.

The Complete Devils Lake Series: