Published October 09, 2011, 12:00 AM

The Devils Lake story

Keith Sellner, one of the duck hunters at the Sellner-Fleissner-Kent duck camp near Devils Lake, N.D., wanted to go visit a neighboring farmer not long ago. The farm was a couple of miles away from the duck camp, but Sellner had to drive 14 miles to get there.

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

Keith Sellner, one of the duck hunters at the Sellner-Fleissner-Kent duck camp near Devils Lake, N.D., wanted to go visit a neighboring farmer not long ago. The farm was a couple of miles away from the duck camp, but Sellner had to drive 14 miles to get there.

That’s because Devils Lake has risen 32 feet in the past 18 years. It’s inundating highways, swallowing country roads and forcing residents to take the long way around to visit each other. It’s also gobbling up farmland and threatening to flood towns such as Devils Lake and Minnewaukan.

“There’s no panic here. We’re not going to drown,” said Richard Peterson, publisher of the Benson County Farmers Press in Minnewaukan since 1963. “It comes up slowly, and we have to get out of the way.”

The city of Devils Lake is in the process of building a levee along the edge of town to hold the lake at bay. Minnewaukan built a dike after the lake flooded its sewage treatment lagoon in 1996.

The reason for the rising water is pretty simple.

“More rain,” Peterson said. “Since ‘92, the precipitation has just been wild.”

In addition, farmland drainage in the northern part of the Devils Lake watershed has aggravated the problem by sending the water to the lake’s basin sooner instead of letting it percolate through the soil.

Devils Lake has been rising since 1940 in “fits and starts,” Peterson said, “but since ‘92, it’s been rising with a vengeance.”

In 1992, the lake level stood at 1,423 feet above sea level, and now it’s pushing 1,455 feet. In the same period, the lake has quadrupled in surface area from 45,000 to nearly 200,000 acres.

Devils Lake is a natural lake, so its level cannot be controlled by a dam. If its level tops 1,458 feet, it will find a natural outflow to the Sheyenne River and meander to the Red River of the North.

While duck hunters and anglers are enjoying the bounty of Devils Lake, farmers can only watch and wait as Devils Lake continues to rise and swallow up valuable cropland. In the future, Keith Sellner will have to make a much longer drive if he wants to visit the farmer who once lived just a couple of miles from the duck camp. He’s moving to Colorado.

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