Lake levels, streamflow, and surface-water quality in the Devils Lake area, North Dakota

Fact Sheet 189-96




The Devils Lake Basin is a 3,810-square-mile (mi2) closed basin (fig. 1) in the Red River of the North Basin. About 3,320 mi2 of the total 3,810 mi2 is tributary to Devils Lake; the remainder is tributary to Stump Lake.

Since glaciation, the lake level of Devils Lake has fluctuated from about 1,457 feet (ft) above sea level (asl), the natural spill elevation of the lake to the Sheyenne River, to 1,400 ft asl (Aronow, 1957). Although no documented records of lake levels are available before 1867, Upham (1895, p. 595), on the basis of tree-ring chronology, indicated that the lake level was 1,441 ft asl in 1830. Lake levels were recorded sporadically from 1867 to 1901 when the U.S. Geological Survey established a gaging station on Devils Lake. From 1867 to the present (1996), the lake level has fluctuated between a maximum of 1,438.4 ft asl in 1867 and a minimum of 1,400.9 ft asl in 1940 (fig. 2). On July 31, 1996, the lake level was 1,437.8 ft asl, about 15.2 ft higher than the level recorded in February 1993 and the highest level in about 120 years.

Since 1993, the lake level of Devils Lake (fig. 2) has risen rapidly in response to above-normal precipitation from the summer of 1993 to the present, and 30,000 acres of land around the lake have been flooded. The above-normal precipitation also has caused flooding elsewhere in the Devils Lake Basin. State highways near Devils Lake are being raised, and some local roads have been closed because of flooding.

In response to the flooding, the Devils Lake Basin Interagency Task Force, comprised of many State and Federal agencies, was formed in 1995 to find and propose intermediate (5 years or less) solutions to reduce the effects of high lake levels. In addition to various planning studies being conducted by Federal agencies, the North Dakota State Water Commission has implemented a project to store water on small tracts of land and in the chain of lakes (Sweetwater Lake, Morrison Lake, Dry Lake, Mikes Lake, Chain Lake, Lake Alice, and Lake Irvine). Most of the planning studies include options to store water in the Devils Lake Basin and to provide an outlet to the Sheyenne River via Devils Lake or the Stump Lakes. If an outlet is constructed, water-quantity and -quality issues will be considered in designing the operating plan. Therefore, current and accurate hydrologic information is needed to assess the viability of the various options to lower the level of Devils Lake.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Lake levels, streamflow, and surface-water quality in the Devils Lake area, North Dakota
Series title:
Fact Sheet
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
North Dakota Water Science Center