Pumping water off Devils Lake down to a level farmers seek won't crush the fantastic walleye angling in the sprawling North Dakota lake, the state's game and fish director says. That's probably not good news for those in the tourism and fishing industries who want to see the lake's drop slowed to a natural trickle.
"Will the fishery still be good? I believe it will be," said Terry Steinwand, head of the state agency that oversees management in North Dakota's roughly 450 fishing lakes.
Steinwand's comments might be a key component in the ongoing battle over Devils Lake water levels.
At a recent meeting of the Devils Lake Outlet Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the state water commission over the use of two pumps installed as the lake was rising dramatically from 1993 to 2011, farmers and fishing industry proponents clashed over whether the pumps should be turned on this spring or left idle.
Farmers — many of whom have seen their livelihood inundated by flooding as Devils Lake rose 34 vertical feet beginning in 1993 and covered 150,000 acres of farmland — say the state promised pumps would run until the lake was reduced to an elevation of 1,446 feet. It's currently at a little over 1,449 feet. At its highest point in 2011, Devils Lake was at about 1,554 feet.
Some fishing and tourism interests believe the pumps should remain off, letting the lake drop naturally to preserve as much good fishing for as long as possible.
"It's a disaster waiting to happen for the tourism industry," guide Jay Breckheimer said at the outlet advisory committee meeting, making the case that a lower Devils Lake would lead to poor fishing.
The advisory committee didn't make a decision at the May 9 meeting in Carrington, electing instead to wait until the lake dropped to 1,448 feet before meeting again to decide whether to pump down the lake. The extra time, chairman Garland Erbele said, would give the committee a cushion to gather information, including how lower lake elevations would affect fishing.
(You can listen to podcast of Mike McFeely's conversation with Terry Steinwand below.)
Steinwand said pumping the lake down to 1,446 feet likely wouldn't have a major impact on walleyes, the most sought-after species in Devils Lake, because there would still be more than 300 square miles of water in the main lake basin.
"I'm not overly concerned about the resource in Devils Lake proper," Steinwand said.
The more pressing issues might be access to the lake and whether fish can survive some of the shallower water bodies currently connected to Devils Lake because of high water.
Steinwand said numerous boat ramps would have to be extended, an expensive proposition, if the lake drops to 1,446 feet. He also said there's a chance some of the shallow lakes north of Devils Lake that have provided good fishing for years — like Alice, Irvine, Dry and Mike's — might be susceptible to winter kill if they lose two feet of water.
"I don't know exactly what the depths of those lakes are, I will have to get that information, but as those lakes go down there is a higher potential for winter kill," Steinwand said. "In fact, I think within the last five years one of those lakes might've had a partial winter kill already."
Winter kill occurs in shallow lakes when heavy ice and snow cover depletes oxygen.
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Steinwand, too, didn't sound the alarm bell over the fate of Stump Lake, currently connected to east Devils Lake by a five-mile channel called Jerusalem Coulee. Representatives of tiny Tolna, N.D., spoke at the meeting to urge the outlet committee to maintain a water level that would keep Devils Lake and Stump Lake connected. They say fresher Devils Lake water dilutes the salinity of Stump Lake, making it better for fish.
Tolna city councilman Bret Poehls said his town has been revitalized by anglers traveling from out of the area to catch walleyes and perch on Stump Lake. Poehls and fishing guides believe Stump Lake will badly regress without the influx of Devils Lake water, something Steinwand disputes.
"We actually stocked perch fry into Stump Lake in the late 1990s to see if they would survive because the salinity was really high and research has been done that shows that fish just aren't going to survive or at least are going to grow really slow with saline levels that high," Steinwand said. "We actually had pretty good perch survival even at lower levels . . . It's still going to produce a fishery."
As Steinwand says, the use of pumps on Devils Lake is far more than just a fisheries issue. The water from Devils Lake is pumped into the Sheyenne River, which empties into the Red River north of Fargo. So the outlet committee has representatives from numerous downstream stakeholders that are more worried about water quality and river levels than walleyes. Minnesota, which has a seat on the committee, advocates for cities in that state that draw their drinking water from the Red. Ditto Manitoba, which monitors water quality as the Red flows north into Canada.
But it seems by Steinwand's words he isn't deeply concerned that Devils Lake's outstanding walleye and perch fishing will be hampered greatly if the lake is pumped down to 1,446 feet.
"We don't have to keep it at 1,450. We're going to have a heavy snow one of these years at 1,446 and it's going to go up," he said. "I don't think 1,446 is exceptionally low, with the exception of the connection between east Devils Lake and Stump Lake."