Roseau River Watershed District pushes back on opponent claims of mistakes in plans for Roseau Lake Project

An official at the Roseau River Watershed District says the plans for the Roseau Lake Project have been carefully vetted after opponents claim plans for the project could contain mistakes.

The footprint of the old Roseau Lake clearly is visible from the air April 15, 2017, during a flight over the area northwest of Roseau, Minn. Roseau Lake was drained for agriculture in 1914 but is prone to frequent flooding.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald

ROSEAU, Minn. — As the permitting process for a northwest Minnesota habitat improvement and flood mitigation project continues, a national nonprofit organization teaming with Roseau-area landowners says plans for the project could be flawed.

Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm representing a group of Roseau County landowners, says possible mistakes in the engineering report for the Roseau Lake Project could mean worse than expected flooding for nearby farmland. However, an official at the Roseau River Watershed District says the plans for the project have been carefully vetted.

The Roseau Lake Project seeks to improve habitat conditions of the Roseau Lake and Roseau River and manage storage capacity of the lake basin to reduce flood damages around and downstream of the lake basin. The Roseau River Watershed District and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are partners for the proposed project.

The area of the project is located northwest of Roseau and is known locally as “the lake bottom.” Roseau Lake was drained in 1914 for agriculture, but frequently floods. Landowners in the area who oppose the project believe the proposed system of dikes will make farmland around the project unusable.

IJ claims a report it commissioned on the project found mistakes in water storage data in models for the project that would make flooding in the surrounding area worse than originally estimated. It says the same report found the project’s cost estimate to be $2.4 million lower than what the project will actually cost and that agencies operating the infrastructure built by the project will be unprepared to respond to unexpected flood events at the project site.


“This report proves the concerns raised by the Roseau County Landowners Coalition that this project would lead to serious flooding on their properties and cost taxpayers millions of dollars,” said IJ Assistant Director of Activism Chad Reese in a press release. “We’re urging the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the permit application for this project because it is clearly contrary to the public interest.”


“This report confirms the issues we’ve been raising all along about the possible flooding that could severely damage our property,” said Norm Kveen, one of the landowners in the release. “We continue to call on the Army Corps to deny this project.”

Tracy Halstensgard, Roseau River Watershed District administrator, pushes back on those claims that the engineering report contains mistakes, saying the planning portion of the project, which is complete, was vetted by funding partners like the Red River Watershed Management Board, and a flood damage reduction work group made up of local, state and federal agencies, landowners and agricultural entities.

“It isn’t just one engineering firm that’s had eyes on this from our side of it,” said Halstensgard. “There have been several groups, engineering technical advisory groups, that have reviewed the modeling, received the input into this and have concurred with our findings.”

Halstensgard said it is often overlooked that the area landowners are concerned about presently sees minor flooding every two to five years.

“Those are the types of events that we are trying to help manage those water levels for, to reduce impacts for landowners, so landowners downstream and adjacent will see less frequency of those smaller events,” said Halstensgard.

For less frequent, major flooding events, the project will not prevent flooding, but Halstensgard says engineers never claimed it would.

“We acknowledged in the beginning that this project will have no benefit and no negative impacts in those larger events because it’s a lake basin — once it gets beyond a certain point, beyond the capacities of the project, it will act as it acts now,” she said.


Costs of the project have increased, said Halstensgard. The project alternative chosen for the Roseau Lake Project was originally estimated to cost $12.9 million. Halstensgard says the estimated project cost now sits between $15 and $17 million and that the DNR and Roseau River Watershed District are continually monitoring the cost of the project.

“We work very closely with our funding partners, the state of Minnesota and the Red Red River Watershed Management Board, to assess those changes in costs, whether the projects are downsized or changed,” said Halstensgard.

IJ's report bases its claims that the Roseau River Watershed District and DNR would be unprepared to handle unexpected flood events in the lake basin on a November 2021 operations plan published by the Roseau River Watershed District. Among concerns listed in the report are the agencies’ abilities to operate control structures while other flood events are going on, access to control structures during flooding and the possibility for debris to clog the flood control structures.

Halstensgard says the DNR and the Roseau River Watershed District have a proven track record of successfully operating water management structures during floods.

“We’ll continue to do that for this project,” she said.

The project is in the middle of the permitting phase, said Halstensgard. The environmental assessment worksheet for the project was completed and it was determined that no additional environmental impact statement was needed for the project. A Minnesota Wetland Conservation Act Notice of Decision was in favor of the project. The Army Corps of Engineers is in the middle of the permitting process for the project, said Halstensgard, and has received public comments.

The timeline of the project moving forward will rely on the Army Corps of Engineers permit and funding availability. In the Minnesota Legislature this session, companion bills SF 1034 in the Senate and HF 1244 in the House of Representatives address Red River Basin flood hazard mitigation. In both chambers, the bills have been referred to the Capital Investment committees.

“We will know more after the session to see where they come out on the bonding that they decide to do,” said Halstensgard. “Between that and the permitting will dictate when we start bidding phases of construction.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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