Property owners at odds with Roseau County over a proposed system of dikes to mitigate flooding are seeing no end to their dispute, and one has likened the ongoing opposition as "a part-time job."
Located northwest of Roseau near what’s known locally as “the lake bottom,” the land is just south of the old Roseau Lake basin, which was drained for agriculture in 1914 but is prone to frequent flooding.
Landowners disputing the proposed $10 million Roseau Lake Rehabilitation Project and members of the project's board are continuing down divergent paths as the board prepares for its next regular meeting slated for 8 a.m. Dec. 2.
"The Roseau River has, in the past, been identified as impaired for low dissolved oxygen as well as turbidity," said Tracy Halstengard, administrator for the Roseau Lake Rehabilitation Project Board. "We believe components of this project will improve both of those conditions for the river."
Citing the proposed project's predicted 5% effectiveness in flood mitigation, the Roseau County farmers' next step is to launch a public opinion campaign to make people aware of the project's shortcomings, according to Melanie Benit, activism associate with the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that was called in as a resource by the 50-member coalition in June.
The project, which has been in the works since 2014, has been contentious, with the most recent opposition expressed during a work session held Nov. 5 by the Roseau Lake Rehabilitation Project Board.
"While the coalition left (the Nov. 5 meeting) without our goals being met, we have answers on how to move forward, and we will be intensifying our public opinion campaign," said Conor Beck, communications project manager for the Institute for Justice.
"We hope to host virtual meetings with community members to educate them on the project, as well as sending literature," Beck said. "We will be reaching out to relevant government agencies and legislators to stop the funding of this project. And we will be attacking the permitting process, ensuring no permit is issued without knowing what this project does to Minnesota’s farmers. This includes making sure that an Environmental Impact Statement is required."
Meanwhile, the Roseau Lake Rehabilitation Project Board aims to continue following "the project process," according to Halstengard, who maintains the effort at flood mitigation will benefit landowners adjacent to and downstream of the project area.
Minnesota’s Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, tasked with restoring, protecting and enhancing Minnesota’s wetlands and wildlife, has committed $2.67 million from the state’s Outdoor Heritage Fund toward the Roseau Lake project. More money is coming from a Minnesota State Bonding grant.
"The Red River Watershed Management Board as well as the RRWD have also committed funding," Halstengard said. "We will pursue other funding options as opportunities occur."
Despite the optimistic outlook for project money, the effort remains unpopular among some.
"We don't want this project," said Terry Kveen, whose family members have farmed the land since his great-grandparents came to Minnesota in a wagon more than 100 years ago.
Members of the coalition say they are most worried about losing farmland to any county action through forced easements or eminent domain.
"What we need is to work together on more projects to stop the water. I would like to see my farm passed onto my family so it is a fifth-generation farm," said Brian Rice, whose family settled in Roseau in 1889.
"This project takes property away from people who don't want to sell their property," said Benit, adding that the farmers have adapted to the periodic flooding, made a livelihood from the land and even benefit from nourished soil that needs no fertilizer.
"It just needs to stop. It needs to be abandoned," said Benit of the project, and later expressed disappointment that no pivotal action was taken by the board to stand back from taking private lands for a project that would have negligible benefits. "The flooding that comes in the spring is very beneficial. The land floods periodically, and it is manageable."
While eminent domain is not a likely option, according to board members, obtaining easements might be one way to move the project forward.
"It's all smoke and mirrors," argued Benit, who said easements would still prevent the farmers from using their land. "It is eminent domain by another name."
However, if only dikes are erected on the north side of Roseau Lake on public lands, there is concern that action may exacerbate flooding to the private lands owned by farmers on the south side of the project area.
"The Watershed District should pursue projects that offer genuine improvements to the Roseau community," said Chad Reese, with the Institute for Justice. "This means that taking land from one group of farmers in order to benefit another group of farmers is not sufficient justification for a project. Taking one farm to save another farm results in zero net farms saved."
"It's never too late to do the right thing," Benit added.