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Gov. Doug Burgum meets with northeastern North Dakota leaders on flooding

Along with Burgum were Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and director of the state Department of Emergency Services; North Dakota Homeland Security Director Darin Hanson and Department of Water Resources Director Andrea Travnicek.

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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Zach Hermann, left, of Houston Engineering, discusses flooding issues in the Cavalier area at Renwick Dam Monday, May 9, 2022 during a tour of the region.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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CAVALIER, N.D. – Gov. Doug Burgum met with local leaders at the Cavalier American Legion on Monday, May 9, to discuss ongoing flood impacts and response in the Tongue River Watershed, where the North Dakota and Minnesota National Guards had been called to respond to the Bourbanis Dam the week prior.

He also met with leaders in Grafton and visited the Renwick Dam, part of the Tongue River Watershed, west of Cavalier.

Along with Burgum were Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and director of the state Department of Emergency Services; North Dakota Homeland Security Director Darin Hanson and Department of Water Resources Director Andrea Travnicek.

“We’re here to gather intel from everybody on the ground, to appreciate the city of Cavalier, the townships, the counties, outlying areas, ranchers and anybody here to gather information to help us make decisions,” Burgum said.

Tuesday, May 3, Burgum activated the North Dakota National Guard to place one-ton sandbags at the Bourbanis Dam to slow erosion. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the Guard placed 213 one-ton sandbags using two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

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On Friday, May 6, the Minnesota National Guard responded to an Emergency Management Assistance Compact request from the state of North Dakota , providing a Chinook helicopter to place two five-ton pumps to minimize water flow at the damaged structure. Now, the pumps are moving 30,000 gallons per minute over the dam.

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"One of the old things we used to say is the lake is not a bathtub, it doesn't just lay at one level," said Pete Boulay, a climatologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "What I always point out, when people complain that (water levels) have never been this low, just go back farther and you'll find lower water than you have right now."

The Bourbanis Dam is one of 10 dams in the Tongue River Watershed. The Tongue River flows into the Pembina River, which is a tributary of the Red River.

“Whatever happens at all of these dams directly affects what happens in Cavalier with all the flooding, so that’s why we’re having a conversation with city leaders, but all these other entities as well, because they’re valuable,” said Cavalier Mayor Lacey Hinkle.

Zach Herman, engineer from Houston Engineering, presented an overview of the situation and activity at the Bourbanis Dam.

He explained that the earthen structure is susceptible to erosion. The dam has an auxiliary spillway that lets water bypass when the reservoir exceeds capacity, but on Monday night, May 2, water began eroding the spillway, creating a growing channel. Sandbags dropped by the National Guard have slowed that erosion.

Water levels at the dam are trending down, but Herman is unsure how rain on Monday, with more forecast for later in the week, will affect it.

“We’re definitely not out of the woods with the Bourbanis Dam,” he said. “We need to get those levels down and we need to get the dam and we need to get the dam to where we’re not concerned every time it rains.”

If there was a breach of the Bourbanis Dam, water would reach North Dakota Highway 5 within an hour, said Hinkle, which is why North Dakota Highway 5 remains closed from North Dakota Highway 1 to North Dakota Highway 32.

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In a National Weather Service update on May 9, the weather service’s Greg Gust said additional rain upstream of the Bourbanis Dam will continue to put pressure on the dam, but dams downstream have room to spare for water.

“Downstream from there at Hertzog and Renwick, they have steadily lowering water levels there, and they did not get that heavy rain overnight, so there’s a little bit of downstream storage in there,” he said.

Moving forward, the Bourbanis Dam is one of three dams in the Tongue River Watershed in the planning stages of an Natural Resources Conservation Service rehabilitation program. The Renwick Dam, the largest dam in the watershed, had a similar update in 2013, when a concrete spillway was installed.

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From left; North Dakota Homeland Security Director Darin Hanson, Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, Dept. of Water Resources Andrea Travnicek, ND Gov. Doug Burgum and Burgum's Chief of Staff, Jace Beehler survey Renwick Dam near Cavalier Monday, May 9, 2022 on a tour of flooding in the region.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Herman said up to 65% of the project could be federally funded, but the remaining 35% will be a “heavy lift for the locals.”

“As you can imagine, concrete spillways are not a cheap thing to install and structure,” he said.

Meanwhile, other cities and townships in the region continue to fight flooding. Samantha Diemert, Pembina County Emergency Manager, said leaders in Pembina and Pembina Township could not make it to the meeting because of the ongoing flood fight, but still wanted to make state leaders aware of the situation in the town.

“I would hope you guys would at least reach out to them and see what you can do in regards to helping them because they’re actively fighting this,” said Diemert.

Nick Rutherford, a Pembina County Commissioner, said Drayton is one town along the Red River that still floods in the spring, and called for action to control the volume of the Red River.

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“Drayton gets whatever Grand Forks, Fargo, Grafton, Wapehton, whatever they want to send us,” said Rutherford. “It’s like one guy said, ‘when they flush the toilet, we know.’”

On April 25, Burgum declared a statewide emergency after much of the state was affected by severe storms on April 22-24. It remains in effect until June 30 or until it is rescinded. The emergency declaration allows Burgum to request a presidential disaster declaration, which would activate FEMA funding to assist cities, counties and the state with recovery efforts.

“I always tell people ‘keep your receipts,’ because we can declare a declaration at the state level just by doing it,” said Burgum. “To get money from the feds, we have to demonstrate cost levels at the township, city, county and even asking individuals, you know, ranchers that have been impacted during spring calving.”

Darin Hanson, North Dakota Homeland Security Director, said the statewide emergency will last until the last river gauge in Pembina crests, and the reimbursement period will be from the start of the spring storms that prompted the declaration to the last river crest. Cost shares within a presidential disaster declaration are usually 10% state, 75% federal and 15% local, he said.

While Burgum credits North Dakotans for being resilient, he says sometimes their independence keeps local leaders from reaching out for state assistance from entities like the Department of Transportation and Department of Water Resources.

“Our first priority is to protect lives and property, but then on a day like today, where things, at least for the moment, are stabilized in this community, is to make sure we’re understanding when we go forward, other resources at the state and federal level can help us create resilience in the system to help prevent these kinds of activities in the future,” said Burgum.

Related Topics: FLOODINGDOUG BURGUM
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 iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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