Years of wet weather leads to high water on some lakesby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
Barnesville, Minn. — High water caused by nearly two decades of wet weather is threatening lakefront property in some northern Minnesota counties.
Dozens of lakes across Ottertail, Becker, Hubbard and Clay counties are nearing roads, cabins and farms.
Many of the lakes affected don't have a natural outlet and water is now far above what's considered the ordinary high-water level.
But officials are having some success curtailing the high waters. Among the bright spots is Grove Lake, where Buffalo Red River Watershed officials have installed a two-foot diameter pipe into the lake to lower its water level.
Bruce Albright, district administrator for the Buffalo Red River Watershed, considers Grove Lake a success story.
"This one was pretty simple to do," he said of the drain pipe. "It has a gravity flow outlet. It goes into Maple Lake, goes down to Whiskey Creek and then on to the Red River of the North."
Grove Lake, which covers roughly a square mile, is located in the northeast corner of Otter Tail County, where half dozen farms and a few undeveloped lakefront lots surround the lake. The shoreline is littered with hundreds of dead trees killed by high water.
The water level has dropped six feet since the outlet was built two years ago. Workers put in the outlet when flood waters isolated a nearby farm.
"So they were boating in," Albright said. "In the winter months they'd have to plow a road on the ice and drive out on the ice. In fall and spring when the ice was too weak to support a vehicle you had to walk in."
This lake is still several feet above the ordinary high water mark established by the Department of Natural Resources. Under state law, no permit is needed to build an outlet if the water stays above the high water mark.
The state paid half the cost of this $300,000 project, the watershed and landowners around the lake paid the rest. The outlet is closed in the spring so it won't contribute to downstream flooding.
This is one of several outlets built in the past few years to protect homes or roads in the west central lakes area of Minnesota.
"Average precipitation for this area should be that 23-24 inches annually. We've been seeing 30-35 inches and the system is just full," Albright said.
He said the Buffalo Red River watershed has a waiting list of at least a half-dozen lakes where high water is causing problems. And they're not all easy solutions.
A couple of miles down narrow twisting gravel roads Brad Hersch can only watch as rising water laps ever closer to his home near Ranum Lake. When he moved here in 1994 the lake was on the other side of a township road that runs near his property.
"This road has been raised just a little over five feet. They raised it twice," Hersch said, noting that some of it is now under water. "There's some spots where it's two feet deep or better."
The lake has risen about 10 feet and it's still rising. Hersch said the water has destroyed a barn. He's built a small earthen dike to protect his house.
Hersch said he could take a government buyout, but he would only get about half the value of his property.
But not everyone in this neighborhood sees the high water as a problem. It's turned swamps into lakefront property, and created high quality private fishing spots for landowners.
Watershed officials say saving one home doesn't justify $300,000 of an outlet on Ranum Lake.
For Brad Hersch, the best hope is that the state will pay for an outlet to protect nearby State Highway 34. It has been raised twice and the lake is again lapping at the shoulders.
Watershed administrator Albright agrees.
"Does it make sense to raise that road up another two three feet, invest $500,000 when you can have a permanent solution for $300,000 and have multiple benefits," Albright said.
The Department of Transportation recently helped pay for an outlet to Boyer Lake after water threatened U.S. Highway 10 near Lake Park.
But most state funding for these water projects comes from the Department of Natural Resources.
Area Hydrologist Bob Merritt said the state tries to target those flood mitigation funds to areas where the need is greatest. That's usually larger communities like Moorhead, Crookston or Roseau.
"Our flood damage reduction funds are quite limited and we have to try and choose priorities and the priority to fund goes to protection of human habitation primarily," Merritt said.
Merritt says the DNR will fund lake outlets when it's the only cost effective solution to protect property.
But he said there's not enough state or local money to meet all of the demands to fix high water in area lakes.