A June 25 article about Devils Lake in North Dakota incorrectly said that it is about half the size of the Great Salt Lake. The Utah lake is more than eight times the size of Devils Lake. (Published 6/26/04)
Mary Ann Blackbull stood by Devils Lake, a basin of salt water that is overflowing its banks with little mercy. Gnarled trees extended from the lake, like the fingers of a drowning man, a reminder that the water is covering land that was once dry.
"This is holy water," said Blackbull, an elder of the Spirit Lake tribe. "This lake is sacred. To us, it's sacred." As she spoke, Blackbull swatted away a cloud of black flies. Traffic rushed by. "The lake is a woman. It's the blood of mother earth. It can give life and take life," she said. "If you take her away, we will die."
The 129,000-acre Devils Lake, about half the size of the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is at the center of an international controversy that crosses the border into Canada, about 100 miles north. Canadian officials have joined with environmental groups and Native Americans to raise concerns about plans by the federal and state governments to build drainage outlets, intended to reduce the lake's flooding. Canadians say the plan would push pollutants north into Canadian waters and violate a treaty between the United States and Canada.
Scientists say Devils Lake, which has no natural drainage and loses water mostly through evaporation, has grown over recent years as water has flowed into it from adjacent wetlands. In the last 10 years, the lake, located about 170 miles northwest of Fargo, has risen 25 feet, breaking its banks and eating up farmland. The government has moved more than 300 people out of the way.
Arguing that building a drain is critical to stop the flooding, North Dakota's Water Commission has approved a $19 million project to pump water out of Devils Lake into the Sheyenne River. Officials hope the outlet, including two pumping stations, nine miles of channel and three miles of pipeline, will lower the lake by four inches a year and counteract flooding.
Despite protests by the Canadian government, Congress also passed a bill in January 2003 allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build a separate emergency outlet for Devils Lake, to drain out more water.
Canadian officials and some scientists warn that pollutants, invasive vegetation and fish species will flow into the winding Sheyenne River, and then into the Red River, which crosses the U.S. border into Canada and into Lake Winnipeg, eventually emptying into Hudson Bay.
"The problem of occasional flooding of Devils Lake is serious but should not be solved by visiting potentially catastrophic environmental damage on downstream users in the United States and Canada," said Reynald Doiron, a spokesman for Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs.
Canadians also protest U.S. plans to drain the lake on legal grounds.
"The boundary waters treaty of 1909 says we will not pollute Canada's waters and Canada will not pollute U.S. waters," said David R. Conrad, a water resources specialist at the National Wildlife Federation.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in a recent statement that the government did not believe a drain would violate the treaty. On the state level, Todd Sando, assistant engineer for the North Dakota Water Commission, said the commission had studied Devils Lake for years, concluding that an outlet would not damage other waters.
"Devils Lake basin is part of the Red River basin and part of the Hudson Bay drainage and it has flowed to Canada in the past in the last 4,000 years," Sando said.
The water volume of Devils Lake, which is about 1,450 feet above sea level, has quadrupled since 1993. If it continues to rise, it could cover more than 277,000 acres.
"Devils Lake came up 2 1/2 feet this year," Sando said. "People are really hurting from the impact. Hundreds of people had to be moved. These people, when their homes were flooded, they couldn't get any money for homes until water was on the first floor. It had to be there for 90 days. For a while, homes were just being burned in the water so that people could avoid debris in the lake."
Those opposed to channeling water out of the lake include bird-watchers, retired water specialists, environmental groups and Native Americans. This year, a group called People to Save the Sheyenne filed suit in North Dakota state court to stop the project.
Opponents argue that the outlets would not prevent the lake from rising and would cause more harm than good.
"It will damage the Sheyenne," said Dick Betting, a retired English professor and member of People to Save the Sheyenne. "There is no good thing about it. They should attack the problem where it starts with the wetlands."
Devils Lake, which was carved by a glacier thousands of years ago, has been territory of Plains Indians for centuries. It was also an important settlement site for early European settlers. In the early 1800s, the lake was vital to fur traders, according to state records.
Over the years, the lake has risen and fallen periodically during droughts and floods. Some builders have ignored warnings about the lake, building too close to its shore.
In Churchs Ferry, a small town close to the lake, almost all the houses are gone. When the government offered money for their homes, many townspeople moved, fearing the lake would take away their houses anyway.
One resident, Paul Christenson, took his chances and stayed behind. Christenson, who owns Paul's auto repair, is also the town's mayor. Christenson said he turned down offers to move because he didn't believe the lake would ever reach his property.
Before government officials started buying properties in 2000, the town's population was 102. Today it is six. "The government solution was to buy people off. We'll give you money to get out," Christenson said.
Families were paid $40,000 to $80,000 to move and have their properties torn down. "I think that is why the town emptied out," Christenson said. "If you were from North Dakota, you would know the property values. Some homes worth $15,000 brought $40,000 to $50,000. If you are not attached to the community, you take the money and go."
Christenson decided: "I took a look at the offer and my future. I decided this is where I want to be for the rest of my life. This is my home town."
Christenson is in favor of the outlets. "My feeling is you'd never find any pollution in the Red River," he said. "It's just a trickle, so minute you wouldn't find it there."
Devils Lake has never been an easy lake to understand, said Blackbull, a cultural preservation officer of the tribe. Even its name is a misnomer. The Spirit Lake Tribe who lived here before settlers came called the lake Minnewauken, which means Spirit Lake or holy water. "But when the Christian Catholics came, they tried to Christianize us. The people talked about the holy water and they said that was bad so they called it Devils Lake, something evil," Blackbull said.
Astel Cavanaugh, a community organizer for the Spirit Lake Basin Alliance, said state officials who are building the drainage outlet are in violation of the government's treaty with the tribe. "There are tribes all the way in Canada who oppose this outlet, 64 Indian reserves," Cavanaugh said. "The state knows they are encroaching on a sovereign Indian tribe. This parcel of land is within the reservation boundary of Spirit Lake Nation and they are in violation."
Astel and Blackbull said some people might find it hard to understand the tribe's relationship with the water. "We are the caretakers of the lake. This lake is a sacred site," Cavanaugh said.
"I've heard stories," Blackbull said, "that little people live here. That horses come from the lake. That storms come from the lake. If the water is gone, where will they go?"