U.S. Department of Defense



Date of this Version



ND State Water Commission, ND Department of Emergency Services, and US Army Corps of Engineers.


U.S. government work.


Devils Lake is a Closed Basin Lake (CBL) located in northeast North Dakota, and is a sub basin of the Red River of the North drainage system. It is a CBL in that, although it lies within the Red River drainage system, no water has naturally left the Devils Lake Basin in recorded history (since the 1830s). Instead, the basin's surface runoff flows through many small coulees (streams) and lakes and is collected by Devils Lake or Stump Lake (located to the east of Devils Lake). There it remains until it evaporates, enters the groundwater, or overflows naturally into the Red River via Stump Lake and the Sheyenne River. The natural state of Devils Lake is one of fluctuation. There is no “normal” lake level or natural footprint for it to occupy. Yearly variations in precipitation, long-term climatic instability, and the unusual hydrologic characteristics of the basin all contribute to this volatility. Geologic evidence shows that the water level in Devils Lake has fluctuated significantly from completely dry (about 1400 feet Mean Sea Level, or MSL) to overflowing into the Sheyenne River (around 1458 feet MSL) since the end of the last glacial period (about 10,000 years ago). According to the US Geological Survey, this phenomenon may have occurred at least twice in pre-recorded history. Records from the first European settlement in the area indicate that the lake level in the 1830s was above 1440 feet MSL. That level dropped sporadically to reach a low of about 1402 feet MSL in 1940. It rose again to 1429 feet MSL in 1987, and dropped back to 1423 feet MSL in 1991. Ironically, one of the most contentious issues in the Devils Lake basin in the late 1980’s- early 1990’s were concerns over the economic impacts of low lake levels on the region. Starting in 1993 and continuing to the present, Devils Lake has steadily risen to record levels, and caused great damage and devastation in the process. During the spring and summer of 2010, Devils Lake hovered in the area of 1452 ft MSL. The most recent assessments of the National Weather Service (NWS) indicate the wet cycle feeding Devils Lake will last for potentially another decade.