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Red Lake ready for flood fight

Red Lake, the biggest lake in Minnesota, is once again capable of handling spring runoff. That's good news for people living along the Red Lake River, which winds past Thief River Falls, Red Lake Falls and Crookston before emptying into the Red River at East Grand Forks.

The 288,000-acre Red Lake, like many bigger lakes, routinely is drawn down to handle runoff. However, in July after heavy rains, it was at its highest level in 36 years. The lake elevation was at 1,176.65 feet, only four-tenths of a foot lower than its record elevation in 1975.

Last week, it was at 1,174.45, a 2.2-foot drop in a lake with walleye-friendly shallow water.

"It's fairly common to get a half-foot drop per month in the summer," said Brian Johnson of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in St. Paul. "But it's not normal you get four months of a half-foot drop. It happened mostly because of our limited precipitation."

Evaporation and outflows also played roles, but the fall's dryness not only created soil that will absorb snowmelt, but added room in lakes for storage.

"What we've been dealt this fall has really been a great thing," Johnson said.

Red Lake's dam and outlet are small, so weather has played a greater role than human measures. The Corps' preferred lake level before spring breakup is 1,173.5, a foot lower than now.

"The lake is frozen over and will flow all winter, but it's doubtful that we'll get another foot drop," Johnson said.

"Still, even though the National Weather Service says we're going into a wet winter, we have a contrasted fall condition. We've had limited precipitation and froze up dry, totally opposite of last fall. It should be a great benefit."

While the spring flooding outlook for northwestern Minnesota has dramatically improved since mid-summer, it's no guarantee.

"It has helped greatly," Johnson said, "but it could start snowing tomorrow."

Reach Bakken at (701) 780-1125; (800) 477-6572, ext. 125; or send email to