After hopeful year, Devils Lake Basin again feels the stress of rising water
CANDO -- John Elsperger slowly drove along a gravel road between his farmstead and his home farm where he grew up, surveying what was productive farmland just three years ago.
"This was going to be soybeans," he said, gazing at the shallow lake that formed in the past month. "We worked up that field last fall. It was ready to seed in May. We were optimistic, really optimistic."
A stiff east wind splashed waves onto the round bales of flax straw that line the road to prevent erosion.
Since 1993, nearby Devils Lake has quadrupled in size, its floodwaters spreading out and swallowing smaller lakes and farmland throughout the region. The lake grew from 44,000 acres to more than 202,000 acres, including those smaller lakes.
But last year, a mini-drought and the expansion of a state-operated outlet system lowered the lake level, bringing new hope to basin farmers as 30,000 to 35,000 acres of farmland resurfaced.
All of that confidence was washed away in late May, when some 7.5 inches of rain pounded the Devils Lake Basin in a matter of days.
"It's very stressful," Elsperger said. "It's depressing, especially after the guarded optimism we had last fall, with all that it looked like we were going to get to do."
Social service workers in the region have watched the lake rise for years and listened to traumatic stories from family after family. They say even those not directly affected feel the impact.
"While other parts of North Dakota are having similar problems, what makes the Devils Lake Basin unique is that we've been at this so long," said Doug Boknecht, clinical social worker and assistant regional director of the Lake Region Human Service Center in the city of Devils Lake. "A couple of high school classes that have graduated have lived the flood their whole lives."
He characterizes the prolonged flood fight as "Chinese water torture -- a little bit at a time over months and over years."
Kate Kenna, director of the Northeast Human Service Center in Grand Forks, shared an elderly woman's story about floodwaters forcing the couple out of the home in which her husband was raised.
"That was our house, and now all we can do is just park across the road and look at it," Kenna said the woman told her.
While flooding has not directly affected every resident in the Devils Lake Basin, it has touched the community.
"For some, there's stress from the sounds of flood," Boknecht said. "Try to sleep and hear beep, beep, beep of construction vehicles backing up all night long."
Elsperger and his son Johnny, who lives at his home farm, are among the most recent of hundreds of farmers and families who have endured the 20-year-old Devils Lake flood, as the lake has stretched farther north and west.
Water is encroaching their farmland from three sides -- from Lake Irvin to the south, Lake Alice to the east and from basin runoff to the north.
Not long ago, Lakes Irvin and Alice, along with Chain Lake and Dry Lake farther east, were separate small bodies of water. Today, they've all run together, some 12 to 15 miles across.
Devils Lake itself has risen nearly 32 feet since 1993, reaching a record elevation of 1,454.3 feet above sea level on June 27, 2011. Today, the lake is at about 1,453.8 feet.
The state spent about $100 million for the outlet expansion and to build a control structure designed to prevent a catastrophic natural overflow of Devils Lake, which would occur at about 1,458 feet. The outlets run to the Sheyenne River, which runs through the cities of Valley City and Lisbon and empties into the Red River north of Fargo.
"By no means is it just us, it's everyone with water, everyone on the west and north side of the lake, the whole basin, all the way to the Canadian border," Elsperger said.
"And it's just not here. It's Walsh and Cavalier County. They've got problems, too. This whole part of the state there's so much land that's not getting seeded," he said, referring to flooding in the state's northeast corner caused by heavy spring rains.
Fractions of land
The Elspergers were able to seed less than half of the 3,000 acres they normally farm along U.S. Highway 281 between Churchs Ferry and Cando.
Dale Overton, one of a handful of neighbors remaining in the area, has seeded just 400 of the 1,000 acres he normally farms.
The Overtons live in Cando, about five miles north of his home farm. About four years ago, they lost their family's farm home, built in 1901, after seepage from groundwater soaked the basement and ruined the foundation.
They replaced the house with a log home on a concrete slab, but no basement.
With floodwater approaching the farmstead, a large pile of sand sits a few feet from the door, some 2,000 empty sandbags stacked in the barn.
"I've got the Cando basketball team on call," Overton said, "ready to come out here and help on a moment's notice if it starts to flood.
"Most of the home farms around here are gone now, especially in this area, either bought out or falling down. There's hardly anybody living out here anymore," he said. "I'm kind of a die-hard, trying to keep it up. But I don't know how much longer I can go."
He has replaced the roofs and painted all of the buildings, except the barn.
Overton said he hopes to get that done this summer. "I have the sentiment that I want to leave it somewhat respectable when I leave. I've had people tell me I'm stupid for doing it. Maybe I am, but that's the way I feel about it."
Boknecht, who describes himself as a glass-half-full, rather than half-empty person, said that for all the stress experienced in the past two decades, there are a lot of positives.
He notes that most infrastructure has been improved to reduce or alleviate the threat of continued flooding.
While the rural population has been shrinking, the city of Devils Lake has remained constant at about 7,100. The fishing and tourism industries are thriving. And the city, now protected by a new levee system, is looking to the future.
A new Walmart Supercenter will be built in the next year or so, and officials are discussing plans to build a new health/events center.
Still, the regional farm economy is hurting.
"A lot of businesses are really suffering," said Overton, who serves on the Towner County Water Resource District board. "The elevators won't have as much grain. They're laying people off already. The fertilizer plants are plum full of inventory they can't get rid of. So there's a lot of negative things involved this year. That's not all the lake. It's just so wet, up north, too."
From 2011 to 2013, the estimated direct and indirect losses from flooding will total about $572 million and 1,681 jobs, according to the North Dakota State University Agricultural Economics Department.
Ramsey County Extension Agent Bill Hodous, co-author of the NDSU study, said farmers enrolling in the federal prevent planting insurance program will get income from their lost acreage.
"Most people can generate a pretty decent income," he said. "But farmers are farmers. They want to plant. That's what they do."
Elsperger is already looking ahead to next winter.
If this year brings yet more water -- such as the 4 to 6 inches that fell overnight Thursday in Barnes County -- and the state outlet system can't operate at full efficiency because the Sheyenne River remains high, he said he fears the worst.
"We're going to go into freeze-up at the high-water mark of 1,454," he said. "That's what makes me fearful."