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A slow-moving monster: North Dakota lake fills with water, swallows land and buildings

It's been called a slow-growing monster: a huge lake that has steadily expanded over the last 20 years, swallowing up thousands of acres, hundreds of buildings and at least two towns in its rising waters.

Devils Lake keeps getting larger because it has no natural river or stream to carry away excess rain and snowmelt. Now it has climbed within 6 feet of overflowing, raising fears that some downstream communities could be washed away if the water level isn't reduced.

And those worries are compounded by another problem: Scientists believe the pattern of heavy rain and snow that filled the basin is likely to continue for at least another decade.

"It's a slow-moving torture," said 72-year-old Joe Belford, a lifelong resident of Devils Lake and a county commissioner who spends most of his time seeking a way to control the flooding and money to pay for it.

No other place in America has faced such a dilemma. The nation's only other significant "closed-basin" lake is the Great Salt Lake, which was in danger of flooding housing developments in the mid-1980s. But shortly after the state spent $70 million on huge pumps, a dry spell began. Those pumps now stand idle.

"We're unfortunately or fortunately — I don't know what it is — pretty unique," said Dick Johnson, mayor of Devils Lake, which has nearly 7,000 residents. The constant flooding "doesn't have the immediate impact that a hurricane or typhoon might have, but it's devastating."

Since the water began rising in the early 1990s, more than 400 homes around the lake have been relocated or destroyed.

The lake, about 160 miles northwest of Fargo, is the largest freshwater body in North Dakota, with an estimated shoreline of at least 1,000 miles. It's up to 75 feet deep and has attracted tourists from across the nation with excellent fishing and other recreational activities.

But local people and politicians are fretting that the lake is a catastrophic flood waiting to be released in their direction.

In the tiny town of Minnewaukan, the lake was once 8 miles away. Today it is lapping at the community from three sides, and residents are begging for help.

"This is tearing people apart," said Minnewaukan Mayor Trish McQuoid, fighting back tears. Proposals include moving the entire town to higher ground.

On Monday, the lake stood at just over 1,451 feet above sea level. If it climbs above 1,458 feet, its water will spill into the Sheyenne River, which flows through southeastern North Dakota before it joins the north-flowing Red River and heads into Canada.

Among the threatened communities along the Sheyenne is Valley City, west of Fargo. The mayor there said a spillover could raise the river more than 5 feet above a record 2009 flood, which forced most of the town's 6,300 residents to evacuate. That might flood up to half the city.

By the end of 2010, the federal government will have spent more than $1 billion to ease the threat, buying flooded property, building dikes and making other improvements. That figure does not include a $27 million floodwater-diversion channel built by the state on the west end of the lake. It also costs $330,000 a month for the electricity for pumps to take 1 inch off the lake.

All of those measures are considered temporary. The final solution — and its cost — is not known.

"The issue of stopping the flooding and trying to get water out of that lake is complicated," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat. "If it weren't complicated, it would have been solved long ago."

Devils Lake has nearly quadrupled in size since the early 1990s, flooding nearly 150,000 acres of land, inundating a million trees and destroying hundreds of homes and farm buildings. Many of those who lost property to the water were eventually bought out by the state or federal governments. The buyouts included the two tiny towns of Penn and Churchs Ferry, although some people remain in both communities.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey say there's no way to predict exactly when a normal weather cycle will return. But the agency's models show a 72 percent chance that the current pattern will continue for at least 10 years.

Climate studies based on tree rings and lake sediment indicate that similar wet periods occurred in the Devils Lake Basin many times during the past 2,000 years, the agency said. The last time the lake overflowed was sometime prior to statehood in 1889.

A federal panel has been studying the lake, but it has not finished its report. Local officials say the recommendations should include creating a second flood-control channel on the east side of the lake and relaxing water-quality standards downstream to allow for the release of more water.

"If they don't do that, we're probably cooked," Johnson said.

Pumping water downstream has long raised opposition in southeastern North Dakota, Minnesota and even as far away as the Canadian province of Manitoba, which could receive some of the water from the Red River.

Officials in those places fear the water would contaminate other waterways with harmful plants and fish and increase sulfate levels in the drinking water. Water high in sulfates, including salts, can taste bitter and act as a laxative. Officials in Fargo and West Fargo are seeking federal help to improve their water treatment facilities for Devils Lake water.

The lake's sole natural outlet, a channel called the Tolna Coulee, is highly erodible and completely choked with sediment.

Madeline Luke, a Valley City doctor, suggests lining the outlet with concrete and storing more water upstream. She and others believe improving the coulee would prevent a wall of water from rushing downstream.

"I don't think anybody thinks there's going to be any one thing that is going to solve it," Luke said. "How to address it in the most efficient, cost-effective and least environmentally destructive manner is up for discussion."

Devils Lake officials are ready to take the issue to court, possibly to fight the federal government's water-quality requirements for lake runoff or to seek permission to build another drainage channel. The city has retained a Minneapolis law firm.

The rising lake, which is owned by North Dakota, has provided some economic benefits, too, particularly in construction and recreation, generating higher sales tax revenue and increasing housing demand.

Flooded farm fields are now a haven for sportsmen in search of walleye and other fish. Scores of Hmong and other Southeast Asian anglers come from hundreds of miles away to fish for white bass, which resemble a species native to their homelands. Fishing contributes an estimated $40 million a year to the local economy.

McQuoid, the Minnewaukan mayor, said she moved here from Minnesota four years ago so her husband could open a guide service. They later bought the general store. The lake has risen 5 feet since they arrived, forcing 13 homes to be moved or destroyed. It's also sparked a debate about saving the town.

McQuoid said she had to tell one resident never to enter the store after he raised a ruckus in front of other customers over an emergency ordinance about sealing water and sewer lines in areas that could be flooded.

"I've never been under so much stress my whole life. I feel it. I know what it's doing to me and others," she said. "But do I walk away now? No."