Devils Lake in North Dakota is forcing hundreds of farmers off the land. About 1,000 residents who live around the lake rallied this week to demand relief from the flooding lake.
The Army Corps of Engineers is holding a public meeting Tuesday night in Devils Lake, N.D. on a proposed project to prevent catastrophic downstream flooding.
If the lake level rises another 4 feet it could overflow, sending water down the Sheyenne River and into the Red River. Officials say if that happens flooding could last months and reach as far as Fargo, about 150 miles downstream.
When locals gathered this week to demand a channel be dredged to release water from Devils Lake, Julie Schemionek was there with maps and flyers. A map sprouting dozens of colored pins showed the farms claimed by a lake that's risen 30 feet since the mid 1990s.
"The lake has quadrupled in size since 1994, it now covers about 280 square miles," Schemionek said. "That's larger than Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota. But Devils Lake still hasn't reached its natural outlet."
Schemionek and her husband used to farm 2,000 acres. This year, she said she doesn't know if they'll get 200 in. She said the family can't relocate, because no one would buy their flooded farm. She said she's fighting to save her family.
"I'm not leaving my farmstead unless it's in a pine box," she said. "This is our livelihood. We know nothing else."
Schemionek wants a channel opened to release water and lower the level of Devils Lake. Downstream communities, the state of Minnesota and Canada oppose the release of water from Devils Lake. They say the lake water is too salty and they worry the lake might contain invasive species.
At this week's protest, about 150 miles northwest of Fargo-Moorhead, Gary Verville and his wife Connie hiked into the soggy channel with shovels and dug a symbolic hole.
The Vervilles lost their home to the lake this spring.
"The other day we had wild ducks swimming in our basement. We've got muskrats swimming in our basement. It's not good," Verville said.
Verville said communities like Fargo-Moorhead get a lot of attention when the Red River floods. But he said those floods only last a couple of weeks. Because of persistent wet conditions, Devils Lake has been steadily rising for 18 years.
Verville called it a "slow-moving monster" that keeps coming up little by little and floods everything out. He said it doesn't go down and you simply lose more and more land.
The federal government has spent an estimated $1.3 billion to raise roads and build levees around towns. Locals call that effort the billion-dollar band aid. They say nothing has been done to fix the source of the problem, a rising lake.
The state of North Dakota is pumping water from the lake, but that's done little to slow the flooding. The state plans to build a second outlet, but it won't be operational until next year.
Experts say if the lake level rises another three to four feet it will create its own outlet channel. The water would flow down the Sheyenne River and enter the Red River near Fargo. The result could be a catastrophic flood that would wipe out small communities downstream and last for months.
Bill Csajko with the Army Corps of Engineers said an uncontrolled release from Devils Lake would flood Valley City, N.D., with twice as much of the amount of water as a record spring flood.
The Army Corp of Engineers proposes to build a low dam across the channel to control the release of water.
Csajko said that needs to happen quickly, because there's a chance the lake could begin to overflow as soon as next summer.
"It would be irresponsible to do nothing at this location because the potential exists for extreme flooding along the Sheyenne River, and I don't think anyone wants to see that," Csajko said.
Csajko said the plan is to build the control structure this winter.
Local county commissioner Joe Belford said there's no doubt Devils Lake water will flow downstream. He said experts told him for years the lake would never get high enough to overflow, but said the lake has proven experts wrong time after time.
"We are in the history repeat time and we were not prepared for it," Belford said. "The only thing that we can hope and ask for is pray to the good lord he's going to slow down the moisture somehow, because that's the only thing that I can see."
Experts say Devils Lake has dramatically overflowed several times since glaciers created the lake more than 10,000 years ago, but it's never happened in recorded history.
If the current wet cycle continues, history could be rewritten sometime in the next couple of years.