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The Hell of High Water


Twenty-two years ago the Red River Water Resources Council met on this date in Fargo to, in part, discuss the flood status of Devils Lake. North Dakota's largest natural lake started to swell after heavy rains in spring 1993, and was already up two and a half feet.

Major General David Sprynczynatyk, then North Dakota state engineer, gave a report on Devils Lake’s flows with projections for the spring of 1994. In the two decades to follow, Devils Lake would not only grow, but increase seven times in volume.

As part of a closed basin, Devils Lake only drains naturally when its elevation reaches 1,458 feet. This event has happened twice in the last 4,000 years. The last overflow was less than 2,000 years ago. This overflow could be devastating for those downstream.

In 2011, Devils Lake reached a modern record of 1,454.3 feet. The flooding devoured roads, farmland, houses, and hundreds of thousands of trees. Despite the flooding, many farmers still pay taxes for their land, submerged or not.

Protection is in place on some parts of Devils lake. Outlets on the east and west release water into the Sheyenne. A control structure at Tolna was added in 2012 that protects those downstream from uncontrolled floodwater. The city of Minnewaukan has a levee in place.

Despite the immense flooding, Devils Lake is a fisherman’s paradise. Walleye, bass and northern pike are common. Fishermen come from all 50 states and various foreign countries to fish North Dakota’s largest natural lake.

Grahams Island State Park operates three campgrounds on the lake, with a beach, boat ramp and a gathering space. Sullys Hill National Game Preserve offers hiking, wildlife and scenic views of the lake.

Through hell and high water, the residents around Devils Lake have adapted. Roadways have been raised or rerouted, causeways have been shored up and the lake continues to drive fishing and tourism.

Dakota Datebook written by Jack Dura


ND State Water Commission. (2014). Devils lake flood facts. ND State Water Commission: Bismarck, ND.

Retrieved from:


Red River Water Resources Council. (1993). Flood status report. Retrieved from