The flooding chroniclesTo the background music of country pianist Floyd Cramer performing Simon and Garfunkel’s hit song from the 1970s, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and a mix of country, gospel, reggae and pop, Howard Blegen narrates a story of despair, of third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation families who are losing their homes to a flood that started 17 years ago and has not gone away.
By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald
CHURCHS FERRY, N.D. — “The past several years have been heartbreaking for many families as, one by one, homesteads that have been around for 120-plus years are slowly devoured by a hungry and cancerous-like flood and have been or soon will be abandoned.”
To the background music of country pianist Floyd Cramer performing Simon and Garfunkel’s hit song from the 1970s, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” and a mix of country, gospel, reggae and pop, Howard Blegen narrates a story of despair, of third-, fourth- and even fifth-generation families who are losing their homes to a flood that started 17 years ago and has not gone away.
“They have been consumed by a flood that moves slowly, nibbling away at a community of farm families who have worked for generations to build up a productive farm area,” Blegen chronicles.
“Eating away and gradually destroying that which our grandparents and parents worked all their lives to build up — a neighborhood of friends and family, where the coffee was always on and a lending hand was always extended.
The video shows water-covered roads and bridges, fields and farmsteads, both from the air and the ground, as a musical medley plays in the background:
- Connie Smith’s “It Only Hurts for a Little While.”
- Danny Gaither’s “Tears Are a Language.”
- Johnny Cash’s “Five Feet High and Rising.”
- Gaither Vocal Band’s “Build an Ark.”
- The Statler Brothers’ and Cramer’s versions of “Precious Memories.”
- Jimmy Cliff’s “Hard Road to Travel.”
- And “It’s Not an Easy Road” from the Country Hymnal.
“Picturesque farmsteads — that once stood surrounded by trees, shrubs, green grass and flowers, where gardens flourished, children ran and played, dogs chased the cats, and the sunsets were gorgeous — have been replaced with drowned out trees, muskrats and cattails.”
Spreading the word
Blegen, who grew up on the family farm a few miles south of Churchs Ferry, recorded a DVD he calls “The Demise of a Community” this past summer, as the elevation of Devils Lake reached a record 1,452.1 feet above sea level.
He didn’t plan on the recording, at least until he saw the landscape from above this summer.
“I wanted to see it from the air, and to take pictures,” he said. “I sat most of the time with my mouth hanging open, rather than taking pictures.”
So, he talked with some friends and neighbors, gathered other photos, and put together a video.
They’ve been seeking state or federal help, some way to relieve the flooding, to move more water downstream, or for some kind of compensation to help them move away and start over.
Blegen made 600 copies of his DVD and has distributed it to state and federal officials.
“My hope is that somebody, some day, we’ll reach somebody in power who will realize what is happening here and will find a way to help us,” he said.
27 families and counting
Devils Lake has risen by almost 30 feet and quadrupled in size since 1993, taking more farmland every week in the spring and summer. And as the newly formed ponds began to freeze this past week in the fields and farmyards of Blegen and his neighbors, they wonder how much longer they can hold on.
Devils Lake usually drops in the fall, as evaporation outpaces the incoming flows from the 3,800-square-mile upper basin. But that evaporation has been minor this year. The lake is freezing at about 1,451.3 feet, with the prospect of rising to 1,453 or even 1,454 feet next year.
At least 27 rural Churchs Ferry families have been forced to move from a small area that measures maybe 10 miles by 4 or 5 miles. The video lists their names, with Tom and Betty Moen the latest, when the recording was made this summer.
“They just packed up and left,” Blegen said. “They didn’t want to deal with the water and the mud.”
Another 10 likely will be forced to go by early next summer.
One of them is Arden Helgeseth. He raised cattle for years. But today, his feedlot is covered in a two-foot pool of water. A half dozen grain bins sit in water on the farmstead.
Many of their homes are intact.
In the 1880s, when the region was settled by European-Americans, the Mauvais Coulee connected Churchs Ferry with Devils Lake. But it was a waterway, not a massive lake.
Many settlers built their homes on land high enough to be out of danger as the lake elevation nears its natural spill elevation of 1,458 feet. But the farm fields and the roads that connect them have been disappearing for more than a decade.
“I wish someone would come up with a word other than flood. People hear the word and they think about a river flooding, coming up fast and then going away. This doesn’t go away,” Blegen said this week.
“It wears on you. How can you measure the toll on the families? “Some say that these people out here are in their 70s and 80s, and it’s time to move into town. But losing your home like this, watching all you’ve worked for all your life, it takes a toll.”
Some federal acquisitions
The federal government bought out most of Churchs Ferry, the nearest community, a few years ago. Neighboring Penn, N.D., is going through a federal acquisition program now, with 11 of the 16 houses eligible, as swelling groundwater infiltrates septic systems.
A few miles to the south, the lake is slowly taking Minnewaukan, N.D., which recently received a $6 million federal grant to build a new school on higher ground. The city also has approved a new business and housing development across the relocated U.S. 281, while keeping the core of downtown intact.
More than a dozen families have been forced to move away from Minnewaukan. They were part of a federal flood mitigation program in which the government acquires and destroys their homes. Some of them bought back their homes and moved them out of harm’s way.
Yet, for people in rural areas, time is running out.
Where does it end?
As he drove south this week from Churchs Ferry on old U.S. Highway 281, which was closed to through traffic several years ago, Blegen talked about the encroaching Devils Lake.
“Here’s a farmstead that’s under water. Here’s another,” he said.
Seven of the eight bridges that cross the adjacent Mauvais Coulee, one of the main sources that feed upper basin water into Devils Lake, are closed.
Farmers have to drive 23 to 24 miles out of their way to reach their land on the other side of the coulee.
Even the eighth bridge had water flowing over the top this past summer.
A bridge on old Highway 281 is showing signs of stress, he said, and neighbors fear it could be washed out in the spring. This past week, water still was splashing against the side of the bridge at the roadbed level.
The Leeds Public Schools school bus ran last winter, but not in spring or fall, because water or muddy roads blocked access. This school year, the bus is not running at all.
Blegen described how his children, and those of his neighbors, are forced to drive to and from school — often in the dark — on muddy, water-covered roads or through farm fields.
“When you see your wife sitting in the kitchen after dark, waiting for the kids to come home, driving through water, it’s tough. It’s difficult,” he said.
“My blood pressure’s up. My doctor says I’m suffering from depression,” he added. “There’s just no fun anymore. It’s not just me. It’s my neighbors. We’re stuck. Hopefully, we’ll be able to survive. But if the lake gets to 1,454, I’m done.
“They keep telling us there are no federal programs for us. How can they — and we don’t know who ‘they’ is — let this happen? There are no buyouts. No major roadwork. If the lake is encroaching on you, shouldn’t there be some compensation?
“How do you convince me that they — and again, who is ‘they’? — don’t want to use this entire northern basin for wildlife? It’s already happening. If this keeps going, they’ll get it. They’ll get it all, for nothing.”
Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to email@example.com.