Canoeing the Sheyenne River, its forested banks and fall colors create a scenic gem in southeastern North Dakota.


     After rising in Sheridan County, the Sheyenne River meanders for 581 miles through eastern North Dakota before joining the Red River of the North on its way to Canada. Throughout much of its length the river is bordered by a gallery forest of cottonwood, elm and box elder, and the nearby valley escarpment is partly forested with ash, burr oak and aspen. Picturesque vistas abound and greet drivers and canoeists at every turn.

     The river picture is changing for the worse, however, as water from Devils Lake is being added to it in ever increasing amounts. The lake has been rising since the 1940s—when it was at an elevation of 1400 feet above mean sea level— and in the fall of 2014 Devils Lake elevation was about 1452.3. If and when the lake reaches an elevation of 1458, overflows will pass through the Tolna Coulee Control Structure and into the Sheyenne River. Pumping from the lake to the river has already begun, however, and up to 600 cubic feet per second pumped from West Bay and East Devils Lake drain Devils Lake water into the river.

     In the event of an overflow from the lake, excess water will flow through the Tolna Coulee Control Structure, which will encourage both erosion through the coulee and, once logs in the structure are removed, lower the lake elevation. In effect, the Devils Lake watershed is being added to the Sheyenne River at an elevation lower than it has been for several thousand years.



• The entire 3810 square mile Devils Lake watershed will be added to the Sheyenne River watershed, permanently;

• All of the water flowing out of the Upper Basin of Devils Lake will flow through Stump Lake and into the Sheyenne River;

• The elevation of Devils Lake could fall to 1446 feet msl, permanently;

• Flows of 3,000 cfs and more from the Devils Lake watershed will be added to the Sheyenne River, permanently;

• Over 2 million acre-feet of water will have gone down the Sheyenne River through Valley City, Fort Ransom and Lisbon and on into Canada, without an Environmental Impact Statement having been done to determine downstream effects;

• Water quality in the Sheyenne River will have been degraded by Devils Lake/Stump Lake water, river ecology altered and beneficial uses compromised.

  • The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Operating Plan forbids LOGS IN THE STRUCTURE TO BE REPLACED


Devils Lake is like a large bathtub filling with water. Precipitation and runoff from the upper basin combine to increase flows into the lake. Since the lake has no drain until it overflows, two drains were built to remove water from the lake by pumping, one on West Bay and another on East Devils Lake. In 2012 another drain was added. The Tolna Coulee Control Structure, a gravity flow system, will operate once Devils Lake rises to an elevation of 1457 feet above mean sea level. At that point water begins to flow through the structure and down the coulee and into the Sheyenne River. Erosion could occur, and the Operating Plan encourages the Tolna Coulee to erode. If the Tolna Coulee erodes from its starting elevation down to the bottom of the control structure, at an elevation of 1446 feet msl.,the Operating Plan prohibits the Control Structure from being rebuilt. Rather, the ditch created by erosion will allow all of the water in Devils Lake/Stump Lake to flow uncontrolled into the Sheyenne River. All of the water in the Devils Lake watershed will then be added to the water in the river from the Sheyenne watershed. The Control Structure will become an open gate. Combining the two watersheds will add to flooding and increased water degradation along the Sheyenne through eastern North Dakota and into Canada. The Tolna Coulee Operating Plan has no expiration date, so if it doesn’t happen next year, it almost certainly will happen in the future, unless upper basin water retention is implemented.


After rising in Sheridan County in the center of the North Dakota, the Sheyenne River meanders for 581 miles through eastern North Dakota before joining the Red River of the North on its way to Canada. Throughout much of its length, the river is bordered by a gallery forest of cottonwood, elm, and box elder. The nearby valley escarpment is partly forested with ash, burr oak, and aspen, which occur where numerous seepages, or freshwater springs empty into the deep ravines along the valley slopes. The sixty-three miles of river road between Lisbon and Baldhill Dam have been designated the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway. Fishing, hunting, camping, canoeing, picnicking, bird watching and sight seeing serve as major recreational activities in the valley. People come from throughout eastern North Dakota to attend festivals held in the valley, taking advantage of its unique beauty, surrounded by rolling plains. The Sheyenne River, despite all its natural beauty and being a vibrant part of eastern North Dakota, is now endangered by those who use the river as a ditch into which excess Devils Lake water is being drained. In a closed basin, Devils Lake has risen about thirty feet in the past twenty years, going from 1423 feet above mean sea level to about 1453 feet msl, summer 2014. To avoid an overflow and to drain excess water from the lake, two outlets have been built to pump water off the lake and into the Sheyenne River, one outlet on West Bay and the other on East Devils Lake.


A more alarming situation involves the latest project, the Tolna Coulee Control Structure. If Devils Lake rises and overflows into the Tolna Coulee, and if the coulee erodes as Devils Lake water drains through it, the coulee could erode twelve feet lower than when it began. An eroded Tolna Coulee would cause all of the water in Devils Lake to drain into the Sheyenne River, adding the Devils Lake watershed to that of the Sheyenne. In the end, Devils Lake drainage would affect residents living along the Sheyenne all the way from Tolna into Canada. Devils Lake water will add to flooding, saturate the groundwater and affect wells, destroy thousands of trees and riparian habitat for wildlife and humans and reduce the beneficial uses of the Sheyenne. Trying to solve one water problem by draining excess water on downstream users is no solution. [Below: Tolna Coulee Control Structure under construction.] The Tolna Coulee Control Structure (above) under construction by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, May 2012. Steel “stop logs” have not been placed yet, so the 10’ by 12’ bays are still open. The entire finished structure will be twelve feet high and one hundred twenty feet long. The intent of the Tolna Coulee Control Structure is to help the coulee erode as water from Devils Lake flows through it when the lake reaches an elevation of 1457-1458 feet above mean sea level. The structure is open like a gate. This is how the structure will look after Devils Lake/Stump Lake has overflowed and the Tolna Coulee has washed out. [Elevation of the top of the structure is 1458 feet above mean sea level, elevation of the bottom is 1446 feet.] The big problem: Logs that were removed to allow more water to flow through the Coulee and erode will “not be replaced for the purpose of holding water in Stump Lake,” the Corps “Standing Instructions” conclude. [p.2] In other words, once the coulee erodes, all of the water flowing into Devils Lake from the Upper Basin will flow on through this open structure and into the Sheyenne River without any control, no matter the amount of water being drained, the frequency of flooding or the time of year. The 3810 square mile Devils Lake watershed will have been added to the Sheyenne River watershed, effectively doubling the water the river will carry. When the coulee erodes as Devils Lake water flows through the structure and all of the stop logs have been removed, Devils Lake will drop 11 feet, from an elevation of 1457 feet msl to 1446 feet msl. In volume Devils Lake will have lost over 2,000,000 acre-feet of water in the process. The volume of water going through the Tolna Coulee at about 3,000 cubic feet per second [U.S. Army Corps’ estimate] will take almost a year of draining.


All of this water from Devils Lake above 1446 feet msl will have been added to the water already in the Sheyenne River from its own watershed. All of the water that flows into Devils Lake from the Upper Basin thereafter will flow immediately out of the lake and into the Sheyenne River. [Evaporation will remove some.] Water out of Devils Lake will equal water into the lake from the upper basin. No shut off valve. The lake will be a tub with the drain plug pulled. In perpetuity. The Tolna Coulee Operating Plan has no expiration date.


One of the main problems with the Tolna Coulee so-called “Control” Structure is that no studies have been done to determine the catastrophic effects downstream on the Sheyenne River. In 2009 and in 2011 approximately 600,000 acre-feet flowed into Devils Lake from the upper basin each year. The average from the years 1993 through 2011 was about 266,000 acre-feet each year. What will be the effects of that much water flowing down the Sheyenne, through Valley City and Lisbon, by Kindred and into the Red River? How much would the river rise during those events? How much mitigation has been done in order to prevent uncontrolled damage along the river? How would the floodway along the river change as a result of the extra water? How often would flooding occur? How much would the cost of flood insurance increase for all of those in the flood-prone zone? How would the almost constant flow rate of over 3,000 cfs in the Sheyenne affect bank erosion? How much more damage would occur to bridges and other structures? In addition to the water quantity problem there will be significant problems with water quality. For example, sulfate levels are about ten times higher in Devils Lake/Stump Lake water than in the Sheyenne. Other contaminants include total dissolved solids, calcium, sodium, arsenic, chlorides, selenium, and others. The ecology of the river would change drastically. Will fish and mussels reproduce? Adding Devils Lake water to the Sheyenne appears to violate the North Dakota Century Code, which states that any activity that changes ambient water quality by more than 15 percent will be deemed to have “significant effects.” Does calling the rising lake an “emergency” negate water quality standards? Have other methods of dealing with high water been utilized?


There are estimated to be from 200,000 to 350,000 acres of drained acres (sloughs and wetlands) in the upper basin of Devils Lake. Much of the water draining into Devils from the upper basin, gets to the lake through several coulees. Edmore, Starkweather, Mauvais, Little, Big Coulees and Channel A combine to produce flows as high as 7,000 cfs in the spring, as much as the Sheyenne could be carrying at the same time. What will happen as the two watersheds combine?


For several years the main method of dealing with excess water on Devils Lake has been to pass the problem along. Two pumping drains have been installed to drain water out of Devils Lake and into the Sheyenne, one outlet on West Bay and one on East Devils Lake. The West outlet [finished in 2005] pumps up to 250 cfs and the East outlet [finished in 2012] pumps a maximum of 350 cfs, a total of 600 cfs. The amount of water they drain combined can be calculated as follows: pumping 600 cubic feet per second = 1200 acre-feet per day. Pumping at maximum capacity for 100 days, then, would result in draining 120,000 acre-feet of water from the lake. If Devils Lake is 180,000 acres in size and that amount of water was being removed, the elevation of the lake would fall about 2/3 of a foot, about 8 inches. Pumping costs for each season could be about $4 million.


Evaporation removes about 30 inches a year from the lake, removing about 400,000 acre-feet when the lake has a surface area of 180,000 acres. Some say that rainfall is the main contributor to a rising Devils Lake over the years. But precipitation has increased since 1993 from about 17-18 inches per year to about 21-23 inches per year. Less than half a foot increase. If the rise on the lake were caused mainly by rainfall, the lake would rise only about half a foot more per year more than it did each year in the past hundred years. However, upper basin drainage has caused thousands of acre-feet of water to drain into Devils Lake, water that would have been held by sloughs previously. Drained water adds to the rise of water on Devils Lake itself. Except it won’t rise after the Tolna Coulee erodes to an elevation of 1446 feet msl. Being constantly drained, the lake will not longer rise higher than its outlet elevation. COSTS Perhaps it will be ironic after Devils Lake has been drained. All of the costs associated with preventing flooding of the city as the lake rose up to an elevation of 1458 feet msl will have been wasted. The dikes that were built to an elevation of 1463 or higher will never be needed. Devils Lake will no longer be the reservoir it once was. Costs associated with dealing with Devils Lake water have been estimated to be a total of $1.8 to $ 2.0 billion, according to 2012 estimates. That’s a staggering amount to have been spent on less than five percent of the area and population of North Dakota.


The amount of sulfate in Devils Lake was a problem from the beginning. Water in the Sheyenne was typically about 100-200 mgl while sulfate levels in the lake were from 600 mgl and up. In order to allow Devils Lake water to be added to the Sheyenne River, the North Dakota State Water Commission (NDSWC) asked the ND Department of Health to modify state sulfate standards several times. The original upper sulfate limit was 250 mgl. Water in West Bay of Devils Lake contains over twice that amount and in East Devils Lake the sulfate levels have been over 1000 mgl. Thus, when the West Devils Lake outlet pumps at 250 cfs and the East outlet pumps at 350 cfs, the total of 600 cfs contains sulfates of about 750 mgl. Or more. The ND Department of Health changed the standard to 750 mgl, as the NDSWC called the situation an undefined “emergency.” Adding Devils Lake water to the Sheyenne, has reduced the beneficial uses of the Sheyenne River. The costs of treating water for municipal uses in Valley City have already increased as a result of adding Devils Lake water to the Sheyenne. The costs of a degraded river ecology have yet to be determined.


Since the purpose of the Tolna Coulee project, as stated by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, is ”to prevent a catastrophic release of flow through the Tolna Coulee,” the best way to prevent this catastrophe would be never to remove the stop logs from the control structure in the first place. The sheet piling forty feet deep across the coulee and the Tolna Coulee Control Structure together would prevent any erosion of the coulee. In fact, the Control structure is built on a false premise: The idea that the Tolna Coulee eroded whenever water overtopped it in the past is incorrect. The operating plan states, “The basic premise of these Standing Instructions is the controlled removal of stop logs after the erosion of the coulee to allow the lake to lower as it would have without the project . . .” [p.2] Contrary to what the “Instructions” say, the Tolna Coulee never eroded during overflows in the past 10,000 years. Cross section soils studies by the North Dakota Geological Survey show sea shells and mussels six thousand years old at six feet in depth in the coulee. These indicate that the coulee has not eroded below that depth for at least six thousand years. In addition, geologists conclude that the Tolna Coulee grew—not eroded—with past overflows, building a higher bank by accretion over the past ten thousand years. As the lake grew, it held more water after each overflow.


Downstream effects from water quality and quantity of the Tolna Coulee project have never been adequately studied. The NDSWC should do a scientifically sound, objectively produced Environmental Impact Statement before the Tolna Coulee Control Structure is allowed to operate. Since the sheet pilings across the Coulee prevent the Tolna Coulee from eroding unless the stop logs are removed, and since the results of water over the Coulee at its present elevation will not be nearly as devastating as an eroded Coulee, leaving the stop logs in place is the best way to deal with high water on Devil Lake/Stump Lake, at least until an EIS has been done and/or upper basin wetland restoration is used to prevent water from flowing down into Devils Lake in the first place. In a mid-summer 2014 meeting North Dakota Governor Dalrymple said that the state had not decided on the ideal elevation of Devils Lake. It might be 1446 feet, for example, as low as the Tolna Coulee Outlet would allow. Or it could be 1448 feet or even 1452 feet msl. The idea that the Tolna Coulee operating plan could be changed contradicts what the Corps plan states, that no logs, once removed, are to be replaced. In fact, once erosion of the coulee begins the logs are required to be removed, the plan says. In order to implement an elevation higher than 1446 feet msl would require manipulating the logs in the control structure, removing some and replacing some at times. If Devils Lake/Stump Lake elevation can be determined by those around the lake and the NDSWC at some time in the future, so can the Operating Plan be modified to do the best thing for those living downstream. Therefore, evaluating and modifying the operating plan before the Tolna Coulee overflows and erodes appears to be a much more prudent plan than letting it happen to initially and dealing with the consequences.

[This information is provided by People To Save The Sheyenne, Box 252, Valley City, North Dakota 58072, a grassroots, nonprofit organization formed in 1997.]