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The Thin Wet Line
by Tom Robertson
March 22, 2000
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While there is growing concern that the state's dry winter will lead to drought conditions, some northern Minnesotans still haven't recovered from flooding caused by last summer's record rainfalls. Experts say a dry spring could lead to extreme fire danger, but too much rain could mean more flooded basements and lakeshore erosion.
The dry winter has prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to nearly close dams on six lakes in the Headwaters chain. Heavy rains last year raised water levels two to three feet above normal, but the lack of snow run-off has dropped levels to below normal. The Corps is holding back water in preparation for a possible drought. Pictured at the Lake Winnibigoshish Dam is Army Corps of Engineers dam operational manager Jim Ruyak.
Photo: Tom Robertson

BEMIDJI RESIDENT Greg Tweed's backyard used to have a small pond surrounded by a manicured lawn and a quaint guest cottage. But last June, in just a matter of days, the rains fell, the groundwater rose, the pond turned into a lake and the water just kept coming. "In one period of 24 hours in August, the water table rose 18 inches in one night," Tweed says. "I have pictures of myself standing in my driveway with just my head sticking out, that's all that's sticking out. Now that's five feet of water, so that says the water table compared to normal was up about seven feet."

Even now, nearly half of Tweed's five acres are either underwater or inaccessible. "It's panic, and then panic turns to kind of depression, because you realize that there's nothing you can do," Tweed says. "All I can say is, in 20 years, I've never seen water like this, nor has anybody else, so it's not a normal thing."

While Tweed's basement somehow stayed dry, hundreds of other families were not so lucky. Some filled their basements with sand to keep the water out, and a few abandoned their homes entirely. Chris Parthun of the Beltrami Soil and Water Conservation District says most cranked up sump pumps last May and June, and ran them until winter freeze. "You could drive anywhere last summer and last fall and you could see hoses running out of basement windows, out of front doors, everybody pumping water into the ditches, or trying to get it away from and out of their basements where they were living," Parthun says.

The summer of 1999 capped what record-keepers called the wettest decade of the century. Parthun says victims of last summer's groundwater flooding were relieved when it was followed by one of the driest winters on record. But he says the lack of snow could cause other problems. "The good news is that we have seen reductions in the groundwater levels out there of about two feet, or a little over two feet," he points out. "But there is a bad turn at the end of that road too. It could prove to be a very serious fire season. So we're hoping for some precipitation, but not too much."

There are burning restrictions in place for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, and there's now a ban on open burning in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. DNR fire management coordinator Doug Anderson says the next few weeks will determine the fire season's severity. "All it takes is five or six days of dry weather and then the right given day and we can have a terrible fire in Minnesota," Anderson says.

"All it takes is five or six days of dry weather and then the right given day and we can have a terrible fire in Minnesota."

- Doug Anderson
Department of Natural Resources
This thin line between flood and drought has brought an unusual sight at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam on Lake Winnibigoshish. Operator Jim Ruyak says normally this time of year the dam is wide open to release runoff from the winter snowmelt. But this year the dams are nearly closed. "This spring is a lot like 1987 was going into the drought of 88," Ruyak says. "We've closed the dams down a little bit. We're starting to build the lakes back up to where they hopefully will get up to where they should be by May."

The lake levels are a far cry from last fall, when they were two to three feet above normal, flooding beaches and causing lakeshore erosion. Ruyak says the Corps has identified more than 11 miles of shoreline that need stabilization because of erosion.

While even the old-timers say they haven't seen groundwater and lake levels so high, the phenomenon may not be that unusual. Records show the water table in northern Minnesota was very high in the 1880s, dropped off until the 1950s, and has been slowly rising since then. Experts aren't sure whether last year's flooding is a sign the levels have peaked, or whether the water will continue to rise, perhaps even as parts of the state burn.