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The Threat from Below
By Tom Robertson
September 22, 1999
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Record rainfall in northern Minnesota has created huge flooding problems. The flooding is particularly difficult because the water is not from overflowing river banks, but rising from underground, where water tables are higher than anyone remembers. In Beltrami County, roads have been damaged, homes abandoned, and hundreds of residents have been pumping water from their basements for months.

WHEN CHERYL BERGLUND first saw water seeping into the basement of her Eckles Township home in early June, she would never have dreamed that more than three months later, she'd still be dealing with it.
Berglund: I'm in denial, OK I haven't taken any pictures. I can't stand to think that I'm going to have to remember this nightmare. And it has been a nightmare. I can't take a picture of anything that's gone on here this summer. That's how hurtful it is.
The Berglunds have had five pumps running non-stop since June, sucking water out of their once-finished basement at a rate of 90 gallons to keep the water at bay.
Berglund: The problem is: we have nowhere to pump it. We're in sand country. We've never really needed ditches because everybody knows sand drains well. Except with this amount of water, it's staying in the ditches, and we have so few ditches, that it has no place to travel. Now it's going to be winter. And what happens to water in northern Minnesota during the winter? It freezes. I'm so panicky, because I see this water coming in, and I can't stop it. And I can't get rid of it.
Berglund is not alone. Most of her neighbors and hundreds of others throughout the region are fighting a losing battling against rising ground water. According to Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Heltzer, the damage is in the millions, and there's no end in sight.
Heltzer: We have a situation where you have failed septic systems, flooded basements, people abandoning their houses all together, loss of farm revenue because people couldn't get into their fields to farm at all. As far as the townships and the county are concerned, we've had roads literally destroyed by this. Resorts, small businesses have all been suffering.
When the water began to rise, Beltrami County was flooded with phone calls from constituents asking for help.
Heltzer: I get calls all the time from people who believe that first of all, it must be somebody's fault, and secondly, they would like me to move the water that is on their property onto someone else's property. They believe their county commissioner should be able to do something about this rising ground water. Actually, if I could do that, I would seek a higher office than that of being county commissioner.
While the county was successful in getting itself declared a federal disaster area, Heltzer says so far there are no evident solutions to the ground water flooding.
Heltzer: If you had a river that overflowed, it would crest and it would go away. Even if you had a tornado, it's there for a short period of time and is gone and you deal with the wreckage and mess afterwards, but this just keeps rising and it's a different kind of problem...The fact is, no one really knows any way that you can prevent this ground water from continuing to rise, as long as it continues to rain. In fact, even as we speak, it is raining today.
Much of northern Minnesota is experiencing its highest level of precipitation in more than a decade. Since April, rainfall has been more than 175 percent above normal. Add this to a water table that has been on the rise for about a decade and the results are high rivers, high lakes and standing water everywhere, with no place to drain. There have been similar problems down the western Minnesota border, too. Jeff Hrubish is with the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District in Bemidji. He says the phenomenon of rising water around Bemidji might not be so unusual.
Hrubish: You have kind of an enclosed basin that is having water come back into it that wasn't there for hundreds of years. One of the things is we talk about historical records, and nobody's seen it in 10 or 20 or 30 or 50 or 70 years. In the grand scheme of things, since the glaciers left that's not a very long period of time, and I'm not sure that we have necessarily been around long enough to see and identify some of those long-term trends.
Soil and Water Conservation District Manager Chris Parthun says the water is still rising, and it may be years before the water table returns to what are considered normal levels. As for solutions, some have suggested diverting more water to the Mississippi River chain. But Parthun says that would add to a river that in some places is already at flood stage.
Parthun: Everyone is downstream from somebody. And that's the tricky part here is you need to recognize that there are more people involved than just your little neighborhood or your county. It takes a tremendous effort on the part of everyone, maybe even the state of Minnesota, to try and address this issue.
While the rising water may be due mostly to a natural cycle, Parthun says development of the land and, in some cases, a lack of good planning has added to the problem.
Parthun: For instance, public utilities, transportation routes, typically put roads through without consideration of the hydrology. Developments are done, subdivision-wise, and other commercial developments, without regard to where the storm water is going to go. As you increase your impermeable surfaces through concrete and asphalt, you decrease that opportunity for infiltration, which increases your run-off.
Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Heltzer agrees that if there is anything to be done, it is to place tighter controls on development.
Heltzer: What we really need in this county if we want to stop this kind of thing, and this solution is probably not too popular, either, we probably need to have a comprehensive plan in the county in regard to land use, that would, among other things, have building permits required, so that people are not permitted to build in low, swampy areas.
An emergency water-management task force, including local, state and federal agencies, has been formed to consider possible solutions to the problem. Meanwhile, flood victims have until Saturday to apply for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.