With more than four decades behind me, sometimes 20 years seems like a long time, and sometimes it seems like yesterday. That’s how I feel about the summer of 1993, and specifically July 1993, when much of North Dakota’s landscape went through a dramatic change from dry to wet.
Just ahead of my senior year in college, I was working a summer temporary position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Kulm Wetland Management District. In previous summers, with stops at Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Valley City Wetland Management District, and my time in college at Bottineau, I spent plenty of time crisscrossing North Dakota, and probably thinking that the long-term drought since the early 1980s was just normal weather.
I saw Devils Lake through binoculars from the eastern edge of the community of Minnewaukon, and literally walked across Hobart Lake west of Valley City. And it seems like yesterday, instead of 1991, that I could see, from I-94 near Driscoll, a rolling alkaline dust cloud blown up from the dry bed of Long Lake several miles away.
At the time, statewide discussions centered on drinking water and farm and ranch survival, while conversations at the State Game and Fish Department centered on maintaining access to Lake Oahe and Lake Sakakawea, dwindling duck populations, and small fishing waters that might never support fish again.
Checking historic lake levels, during 1993 Devils Lake was at around 1,422 feet mean sea level and the eastern part of the lake was in danger of winterkill with one more dry summer.
And then everything changed. According to National Weather Service records, July 1993 was the wettest month ever recorded in much of North Dakota, not only up until that time, but since then as well.
The thing that makes it seem like a long time ago, is that one exceedingly wet month wasn’t just a temporary respite. Winter 1993-94 was one of the snowiest on record, and that was topped by winter 1996-97.
With some dry years interspersed in the mid-2000s, we had three straight wet years again from 2009-11. Many large lake basins that were dry before 1993 had reached record water levels by summer 2011, and some of them have even more water in 2013.
Devils Lake has now inched into the Minnewaukon city limits, a full 30 feet higher than it was 20 years ago.
The engulfing of homes, farmland, businesses and roads over this 20-year span are well documented, and should the cycle continue for another decade, who knows how much more water could accumulate.
The influx of new water, however, has also created hundreds of new fishing opportunities in North Dakota, and turned around a declining continental duck population.
North Dakota now boasts a record number of fishing waters, and while still small in number compared to some other states, the quality of fishing for pike, walleye and perch is attracting a lot of attention. In fact, in 2012 the state had a record number of both resident and nonresident anglers.
I’m fortunate that my career has sort of paralleled this transformation of part of North Dakota’s landscape. It’s been an interesting 20 years, and it’s gone by quickly.
Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email: email@example.com