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McFeely: Question facing Devils Lake is farming or fishing?

State water commission has to decide whether to continue pumping water to reduce lake level.

Garland Erbele, North Dakota state engineer and member of the Devils Lake Outlet Advisory Committee, speaks with other members of the committee after a meeting in Carrington, N.D., on Thursday, May 9. Mike McFeely / The Forum

CARRINGTON, N.D. — Farming or fishing?

That is the question facing the residents of Devils Lake and the surrounding area. Eventually, it will have to be answered by the state of North Dakota.

About 50 people packed a conference room in the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District offices in this city on Thursday, May 9, to listen to, and attempt to sway, a committee charged with making a recommendation to the State Water Commission.

At issue is whether the state should continue to operate two pumps that take about a foot of water off the lake each year, or whether the pumps should remain idle to slow the lake's drop. A pump was installed at the west end of Devils Lake in 2005 and another on the east end in 2012 as rising waters inundated farmland and threatened the city of Devils Lake.


Farmers want lower water because it exposes more agricultural land, some of which has been underwater for 25 years. Fishermen want higher water because they believe it will maintain a world-class fishery that sprouted when the waters began to rise.

"The lake has done wonders for us," Tolna City Councilman Bret Poehls said in imploring the committee to maintain higher water levels because it benefits nearby Stump Lake, which is connected to Devils Lake by a 5-mile channel. "It has diversified our economy, turning us from an ag-based community to one that has both recreation and ag."

Poehls listed how Tolna, a town of about 150 people, has grown since fishing became outstanding on Stump Lake and Devils Lake. New homes and campgrounds have sprung up around the lake, old homes in town that go on the market are easily sold, a new grocery store moved in, and other businesses expanded.

"Fifteen years ago, the only thing we had on a Saturday night in Tolna was tumbleweeds," Poehls said. "We were a dying town. The water has completely changed the vibe and outlook of our town."

Paul Christenson, the mayor of Churchs Ferry north of Devils Lake, said the state needs to continue taking water off the lake.

"It would be a great disservice to the farmers to not use those pumps to the full capacity for their intended purpose," said Christenson, whose town shrunk from 103 people to just seven after it was bought out by the federal government in 2000 because of flooding.


From 1993 to 2011, Devils Lake rose 34 vertical feet. It swallowed about 150,000 acres of farmland, costing farmers and the local economy tens of millions of dollars.

The upside of all that water was that Devils Lake and connected bodies of water like Stump Lake, Dry Lake, Lake Alice and Lake Irvine became tremendous walleye, perch and northern pike fisheries that attracted anglers from near and far, generating millions of dollars in tourism spending and hundreds of jobs.

At its peak in 2011, Devils Lake's elevation was 1,454.40 feet. It's dropped each year since, owing to the pumps and less annual precipitation, and sat at 1,449.10 feet as of Thursday afternoon.

Farmers and entities like Ramsey County and the Devils Lake Joint Water Resource Board want the pumps to keep removing water until the lake drops to 1,446 feet. That's a number they say they were promised by the state when the pumps were installed.

Anglers and those in the recreation and hospitality industry are advocating that the pumps remain quiet this year because they believe a lower lake level will damage fishing.

"I've seen what's happened in other places like Red Lake and Mille Lacs in Minnesota. Those people are all coming to Devils Lake now. In Canada, you can only bring home four fish and people don't want to go up there anymore," said fishing guide Jay Breckheimer, referencing two lakes that have declined as walleye destinations in recent years. "North Dakota is where it's at. Thousands and thousands of people make their living off tourism."

Breckheimer said if the state keeps taking water out of Devils Lake, the lake will shrink and concentrate fishermen in a smaller area. That could devastate the fish population.

"We're the next Red Lake. We're the next Mille Lacs," he said. "It's a disaster waiting to happen for the tourism industry."


After meeting for almost three hours, the committee punted. Chairman Garland Erbele, North Dakota's state engineer, suggested meeting again when the lake level dipped to 1,448 feet and the committee agreed. Erbele and the committee believe that will allow time to gather more information on things like how low Devils Lake can drop before it stops running into Stump Lake and how lower water levels might affect fish populations.

"This is not a simple question," Erbele said. "There are many varying interests."

It's simple to farmers like Karen Hausmann of Churchs Ferry, whose land has been in her family since 1882 but has been ravaged by Devils Lake floodwaters.

"Those of us who farm are counting on you to operate those pumps as they were designed," Hausmann said. "Many promises have been made. Not all of them have been kept."

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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