Devils Lake Outlet

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United States of America (Basin: Devil's Lake Basin)

Described as:

- Aqueduct/canal/transmission system

Project Dates: 2003-

The Devil’s Lake Outlet (DLO) is a water management project carried out by the state government of North Dakota to discharge water from Devil’s Lake, a closed-basin lake near a town of the same name, into the Sheyenne River. The DLO was intended to create a path for outflow to reduce water levels in Devil’s Lake, which had been rising due to heavy rainfall from 1992-2005 and causing heavy flooding losses in nearby developed areas. The project was started in 2003 and completed in 2005 at the cost of about $28 million.[1] The outlet allows water flow of around 2.8 m³/s through a fish screen and simple gravel filter.The state-funded DLO was not subject to environmental impact assessments required of federal projects, and its environmental safety have been openly questioned by both the Canadian federal and Manitoba state governments.[2]


Devil’s lake is a closed basin lake, meaning one which does not have outlets, and thus is subject to large fluctuations in water level[3]Starting in the early 1990’s, the water levels in the lake began to rise consistently, and caused huge losses to agricultural and residential land in the region. Before the construction of the outlet, over $400 million was spent on other measures of flood protection.[4] The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) created a proposal to manage the levels of Devil’s lake using an outlet to the Sheyenne River through a nearby connected lake, Pelican Lake. This project had an estimated cost of approximately $186.5 million, of which the federal government was willing to pay 70%, leaving the state of North Dakota to account for the remainder[5] This proposal included plans for sand filter capable of excluding most aquatic organisms and discharging up to 8.4 m³/s of water at a time. The federal plan also drew water from Pelican Lake rather than directly from Devil’s lake, which would have allowed higher quality water to be discharged into the Sheyenne River.[5] The state government of North Dakota, claiming that the USACE plan was too expensive, launched their state project instead.

The government of Canada argued that the potential for biological invasion violated the rights granted to both nations in the Boundary Waters treaty, and wanted to invoke the International Joint Commission (IJC) to investigate the matter. By convention, both countries have always invoked the IJC on a unilateral basis; thus, when the U.S. declined to invoke the IJC, Canada did not press the issue and they were not involved in the dispute[1]The states of Manitoba (Canada), Minnesota (United States) and other small stakeholders sued the North Dakota department of health to have the DLO’s water quality permit revoked, but were not supported.[6]

The Devil’s Lake Outlet Dispute

The state-constructed DLO has caused persistent dispute between the U.S. and Canada since its implementation in 2003. Canada’s primary opposition to the DLO is that it drains water from a closed basin lake into the Sheyenne river, a tributary of the Red river, which drains into Lake Winnipeg, a commercially, culturally, and ecologically important body of water in the Canadian state of Manitoba. The perceived risk is the potential for biological invasion from organisms in Devil’s Lake not native to Lake Winnipeg or its tributaries, which pose a threat to traditional first-nation and commercial fisheries in the region. The low-quality filters used by the DLO fail to reduce the possibility of transferring biota further downstream.[6]

Recent Developments

In 2009, North Dakota changed its environmental standards to allow larger releases of water from the Devil’s Lake outlet. [7] The Federal Interagency Devil’s Lake Working Group, consisting of members from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and several other federal agencies, released a report in 2010 summarizing state and federal actions addressing the Devil’s Lake problem and outlining possible steps to better manage the system. Among these were to increase the capacity of the state-constructed outlet, to improve infrastructure to prevent uncontrolled releases, and to assess impacts of the lake’s expansion on agricultural lands, and city infrastructure. [7]

Two of the actions proposed in their report were the creation of the Devil’s Lake Collaborative Working Group (DLCWG) and Devils Lake Executive Committee (DLEC) to represent basin stakeholders and organize management efforts, respectively. Both of these organizations were intended to help coordinate efforts between federal, state, and local governments as well as the Spirit Lake tribe, a Native American tribe affected by the continued flooding of Devil’s Lake. According to a case study report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, stakeholder feedback on the newly improved management process has been positive.[8]

In 2010, the DLO was expanded to release up to 7 m³/s of water, but this amount was insufficient and lake levels continued to rise.[9]The following year, a second outlet was created on the East side of the lake into the Tolna Coulee; a project that was also implemented by the state, but more closely matched the original federal project than the first outlet. It was also carried out with Federal approval. The capacity of the second outlet is 9.9 m³/s[10] Flooding has continued in Devil’s Lake, implying that these improvements may still be insufficient to protect surrounding communities and maintain lake levels.

  1. ^ 1.0 1.1 Whorley, D. 2008. The Devil’s Lake Outlet and Canada-U.S. Transboundary Water Relations; Or, How George C. Gibbons Got the Last Laugh. 31 Hamline L. Rev. 615. 20 pp.
  2. ^ Paris, R. 2008. The Devils Lake Dispute Between Canada and the United States: Lessons for Canadian Government Officials. University of Ottawa Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) working paper. 31 pp.
  3. ^ Wiche, G.J. et al. 2005. Climatology and Potential Effects of an Emergency Outlet, Devils Lake Basin, North Dakota 1. United States Geological Survey, 4 pp.
  4. ^ Kempf, Bart. 2007. "Draining Devils Lake: The International Lawmaking Problems Created by the Devils Lake Outlet." Georgetown International Environmental Law Review.
  5. ^ 5.0 5.1 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 2003. Final Integrated Planning Report and Environmental Impact Assessment S-11. Available at: Accessed March 2013.
  6. ^ 6.0 6.1 North Dakota Supreme Court, 2013. North Dakota Supreme Court Website. Available at: Accessed March 2013.
  7. ^ 7.0 7.1 Federal Interagency Devil’s Lake Working Group, 2010. Report of the Federal Interagency Devil’s Lake Working Group. Available at: Accessed March 2013.
  8. ^ Climate Services Partnership, 2012. Devils Lake Decision Support System: Using Climate Information to Manage Flood Risk. Available at: Accessed May 2013
  9. ^ North Dakota State Water Commission, 2012. Mitigation Plan for the Devil's Lake Outlets. Bismark, North Dakota. Available at:
  10. ^ Devil’s Lake Executive Committee, 2011. Devil’s Lake Executive Committee Final Action Plan. Available at: Accessed May 2013

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