Devils Lake – Lake Sakakawea Water Conditions

January 31, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Minnewaukan boat ramp at a high level

Minnewaukan boat ramp at a high level

Like night and day. Comparing apples to oranges. Pick your cliché that refers to contrasting situations, and apply it to North Dakota’s two largest bodies of water, Lake Sakakawea and Devils Lake.

Sakakawea, a reservoir on the Missouri River, is at its lowest water level since it first filled nearly 40 years ago. If current projections hold true, it will creep even lower at the summer progresses.

The water level at Devils Lake, the state’s largest natural water body, is holding at a high peak not seen any time in the last 150 years. It could inch even higher if spring rains are abundant.

Despite their differences in water level direction, these two lakes also have several things in common. They are the top two fishing destinations in the state. Fishing success the last few years has been good to excellent. Maintaining boating access is a challenge at both.

To fully appreciate the current situation, a quick look back to the early 1990s is in order. In the fall of 1992, the water level at Devils Lake stood at about 1,423 feet above mean sea level. Fisheries biologists were concerned about the potential for a major winterkill. There was talk of a need for a man-made channel that would provide Missouri River water to Devils Lake to preserve the fishery.

At the same time, Sakakawea was also at a low level, something around 1,817 feet msl. Biologists documented that low water, resulting in reduced coldwater habitat, was the reason for a major rainbow smelt die-off, a significant event since smelt are the primary forage for the major game fish species in the lake.

Abundant rains came in the summer of 1993, followed by several more years of above-average precipitation, and capped by record snowfall in 1997. Lake Sakakawea nearly established a record high water level in 1997 at 1,854 feet msl, 37 feet above the October 1992 mark.

Since then, the precipitation pattern in the mountains, from where Sakakawea receives most of its water, has changed. Today, Sakakawea’s water level is down more than 40 feet since the last high mark in summer 1997, the result of several years of dry conditions.

It hasn’t been quite as dry around Devils Lake. The water level at this lake went up more than 20 feet through the mid-1990s. Since then, instead of leveling off and starting to recede, Devils Lake has generally continued to slowly grow, reaching a modern-day record of around 1,449 feet msl last summer. Winterkill is no longer a threat to the fishery.

In fact, as devastating as the rising water has been for people, the Devils Lake fishery has flourished. It could be argued that the last decade has produced some of the best fishing ever. The expanding acreage has created more habitat for fish, and has allowed for greater natural reproduction of pike, walleye and perch, which didn’t always occur when water levels were much lower.

Getting boats on the lake, however, has been a challenge as rising water has covered up some ramps. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department and many private and public partners have invested a lot of time and money over the last several years maintain boating access at Devils Lake.

What used to be the Hazen boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea

What used to be the Hazen boat ramp on Lake Sakakawea

The same goes for Lake Sakakawea, but for the opposite reason. Receding water is leaving many ramps high and dry.

At ice out this year, which should occur soon if it hasn’t already, Sakakawea may have only one usable boat ramp on a lake that’s more than 150 miles long. Game and Fish and other government agencies have planned another major investment to try to get up to 20 ramps usable by Memorial Day weekend.

The long-range forecast, based on current precipitation, is for Sakakawea to continue to recede into next fall. Smelt will again teeter on the brink of disaster this summer. Fewer smelt mean slower walleye and salmon growth, resulting in poorer survival.

For the immediate future, less water might mean better angling as fish will be more concentrated. And fish will be hungry if the smelt population goes down. In the long term, however, there is little reason for optimism if the water doesn’t start coming back up.

North Dakota’s two leading fisheries have more in common than most people realize, but their contrasts are stark, given they are separated by less than a tank of gas. What will the future hold? Stay tuned.


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