FLOOD FIGHTERS: 40 years of floodingDennis Markusen has spent most of the past four decades dealing with flooding issues, including 33 years as Walsh County highway superintendent. In his county job, he oversaw 500 miles of county roads and 530 county and township bridges, dealing with washed out roads and bridges and overland flooding. Open the article link to see video of Dennis Markusen.
By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald
Family: Wife, Linda; six children; seven grandchildren.
Home: Rural Grafton, N.D.
When not a flood fighter: Registered professional land surveyor.
Flood fighter equipment: GPS; level; ATVs and 4X4s; heavy equipment; dynamite.
Flood fighter duty: Topographic surveys; dike elevation verifications.
Best flood memory: No loss of life directly from flooding.
Worst flood memory: When Walsh County landowners were ordered to lower their dikes along the Red River.
RURAL EDINBURG, N.D. — Dennis Markusen stood atop Langerud Hill, an old downhill ski slope built years ago above the Middle Branch of the Park River, looking over a broad expanse of northern Walsh County.
The long-abandoned ski hill lies adjacent to Langerud Dam No. 5, a concrete dry dam completed in 2007 to retain water for short periods of time in an effort to decrease peak flows during spring runoff and summer rainstorm events. Unlike a reservoir, which provides recreational opportunities, a dry dam is used strictly for water storage.
Markusen was a student at Walsh County Agricultural School in nearby Park River, N.D., in 1967, when planning started for the dry dam.
“It took 40 years to get that built,” he said, “Forty years of hoops and hurdles, environmental regulations and issues that caused delays.”
Markusen has spent most of the past four decades dealing with flooding issues, including 33 years as Walsh County highway superintendent.
In his county job, he oversaw 500 miles of county roads and 530 county and township bridges, dealing with washed out roads and bridges and overland flooding.
Since retiring at the end of 2007, he’s worked as a land surveyor with Kadrmas, Lee and Jackson, an engineering firm with an office in Grafton. Part of that job involves providing expertise to the city of Grafton, which builds temporary dikes to thwart off the almost annual threat of flooding from the Park River, which meanders through the north end of town on its way to the Red River.
“He knows where the water’s going before it gets there,” City Administrator Mylo Einarson said.
Markusen shrugs off such praise.
“By nature of my job, I have been out in the water during flood situations,” he said. “Over time, you observe what is happening and investigate causes to see what situations are preventable. Colleagues and residents have been very willing to share their knowledge with me.”
Grafton’s two biggest floods were in 1950 and 1948, so he wasn’t around to help fight them. But he’s been around for every one — spring and summer — since the early 1970s.
He recalls one in late summer of 1975, after a 13-inch rain southwest of Fargo, when floodwater swamped roads, farmsteads and fields in eastern Walsh County.
“Golden heads of barley and wheat were waving in the water,” he said. “They were days away from harvest and that crop was wiped out.”
That event sparked a contentious era along the Red River, between Oslo, Minn., and Drayton, N.D., as farmers on both sides of the river started building up dikes to prevent flooding on their own land.
“Emotions ran high, so diking escalated from there,” he said. “It was like a nuclear arms race. If your neighbor builds up, you build up.”
A series of lawsuits followed, before the two sides finally reached an agreement on dike building, based on the 1975 peak flow at the Red River bridge at Oslo. Still, dikes on the Minnesota side of the river are a foot higher than those in Walsh County.
While few people live along that stretch of the river anymore, the result of flood mitigation programs designed to move homes away from flood plains, flooding remains a constant challenge for farmers and people dealing with roads, bridges and other infrastructure.
Bridges over rising waters
Markusen, a member of the Walsh County Historic Preservation Commission, laments the loss of historic bridges that have become victims of chronic flooding.
“Summer floods really take their toll,” he said while visiting the Holt Bridge, a twisted steel truss bridge a couple of miles northwest of Grafton that was closed four years ago, forcing nearby residents to take detours of four to six miles to reach fields on the other side of the Park River.
Markusen is working again this spring with the city of Grafton as it plans to build yet another temporary dike to keep the Park River at bay.
Local leaders are hoping that some year soon, a Park River diversion project will be built to relieve the emotional and financial stress of almost annual flooding. A proposed project stalled in Congress this winter.
In the meantime, retention projects such as the Langerud dry dam are providing some protection, he said.
The 40-year-long effort finally came together as a cooperative project between Walsh County and the Walsh County Water Resource District, with cooperation from the North Dakota State Water Commission and federal Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“We’re so happy it’s here,” he said. “But if there’s a way people could come together, to move projects along faster, we’d have far fewer problems with flooding.”
Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to email@example.com.