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Oslo, Minn., levees get $3.7 million boost

Over three of the past four springs, Oslo, Minn., residents have watched as the Red River rose out of its banks and turned their town of 320 into an island.

Trees mark the channel of the Red River (bottom) as it passes heavely diked Oslo, Minnesota on Wednesday afternoon. Herald photo by John Stennes.

Over three of the past four springs, Oslo, Minn., residents have watched as the Red River rose out of its banks and turned their town of 320 into an island.

They have had to build a temporary levee each time to close a 2000-foot gap in the permanent levees. In April 2011, it took more than 100 volunteers to add about 10,000 sandbags after a strong southwest wind eroded a portion of the levee.

But after fall 2013, Oslo's new levees will offer year-round protection, and they'll meet new federal standards that the old levees don't. The town's flood protection is getting a $3.7 million boost from the state Legislature's bonding bill, allowing work to continue after funding from the 2011 bonding bill runs out.

"We're anxious to move ahead and get the ball rolling," said Oslo Mayor Scott Kosmatka. "It should happen quickly now that funding is in place."

He said the funding for the project has been the main concern, but local legislators were able to pull it off, despite opposition.


"It's just funding that is tight, everyone has to fight for every dollar they get," Kosmatka said. "There are people down south that think our projects are not that important, but the state has done what they can for us, and as fast as they could have."

Still, the new levees won't solve another long-standing problem with Oslo's flood protection system, according to the mayor. During high water, the town would still be cut off and residents would have to use airboats to get in and out of town.

$11m project

Oslo's share of the $496 million bonding bill approved in May will fund Phases 2 and 3 of the town's levees, realigning parts of the current levees and adding new levees.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency considers the existing levees outdated and mandated upgrades in 2009. Without the upgrades the whole town would be considered to be in the floodplain, affecting future developments in town, increasing flood insurance premiums for property owners and making it less likely the town will get federal grants, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By the time all phases of the project are completed Kosmatka said it will probably cost a total of $11 million.

So far, a new water storage tank is being built on the dry side of the new levees, and 24 homes and 31 parcels of land along the riverbank have been purchased and razed to make room for levees.

Kosmatka said having to buy the homes was one of the most difficult parts of the project, although homeowners eventually agreed to buyouts, which were based on appraised value.


"People have lived over 20 years in those homes, when that happens nobody wants to be moved from their residence, so people were disheartened," he said. "But we at the city have to do what is best for the city."

Next steps

Oslo is just waiting on final approval of the project design from the Corps of Engineers, which is expected by the end of the month.

Kosmatka said once that happens, the contracts can be signed and work can begin.

Phases 2 and 3 have been combined into one contract and awarded to Gowan Construction of Oslo, Kosmatka said. The lead engineer on the project is Barr Engineering of Minneapolis, working with CPS Ltd. of Grand Forks, the town's engineering firm.

Phase 2 includes a new 3,825-foot levee from the Minn. Highway 1 bridge, which crosses the Red River, north toward Riverside Cemetery. It also includes realignment of 1,900 feet of existing levee that will then connect to the new levee.

Overall, the town's levees will be raised 1.1 to 1.7 feet to exceed FEMA's floodplain elevation, which varies from 810 feet above sea level in the city's north end to 811 feet in the south end, according to the Corps of Engineers. The highest river level was 811.02 feet on April 1, 2009, the second highest was 810.67 feet in 2011.

The old levee, which withstood all those floods, will remain in place to ensure flood protection during construction.


Outdated dikes

Kosmatka said many residents have been waiting for this project. He has lived in Oslo for 35 years, and he said he inherited the outdated levees when he became mayor in 2011.

The Corps of Engineers built the town's 3.2-mile long levee in the mid-1970s.

There must have been some stability issues with building a permanent levee close to the riverbank back then, according to Russel Snyder, project manager with the corps' St. Paul District.

So each time the river floods, the city has to build a 2,000-foot temporary levee. And it can't actually do any building until the river is within 2 feet of major flood stage, when water pressure shores up the riverbank enough for it to withstand the weight of the temporary levee.

Today, FEMA frowns on that sort of thing, and the new levee alignment was needed.

"What was an acceptable solution then is not viewed as one by today's standards," Snyder said.

A young river like the Red River does not have a large or deep river valley, he said. "It's very flat, and the slope flowing to Canada is flat," Snyder said. "So when you get a lot of water, it's just going to spread out."

"It just bottlenecks up here," Kosmatka said. "We're just lucky to be in that spot right along the river and have to deal with it from year to year," he joked.

On the Web: To see the Corps of Engineers report, Click Here

Reach Jerke at (701) 787-6736; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1736; or send email to tjerke@gfherald.com .

Oslo's levee

Related Topics: OSLO
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