Proposed Roseau Lake Project offers both flood control and benefits for fish and wildlife

NEAR ROSEAU, Minn.--The frogs are happy on this mid-April Saturday morning, and puddle ducks by the hundreds erupt from the flooded lowlands along the Roseau River as Randy Prachar steers a 14-foot boat down a large drainage ditch. Manager of the...

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. (Photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
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NEAR ROSEAU, Minn.-The frogs are happy on this mid-April Saturday morning, and puddle ducks by the hundreds erupt from the flooded lowlands along the Roseau River as Randy Prachar steers a 14-foot boat down a large drainage ditch.

Manager of the Roseau River Wildlife Management Area, Prachar and Jason Braaten are hosting a tour of a proposed project they and other supporters say will offer both flood control and fish and wildlife benefits.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Roseau River Watershed District are partners in the proposed Roseau Lake Project. Braaten, who farms northwest of Roseau, serves on the watershed district board.

"We're looking at trying to control the water a little bit more coming out of this Roseau Lake," Braaten said. "Try to control the peaks in it so we can get more for wildlife and slow it down a little bit."

But as with water projects everywhere, the Roseau Lake Project has its skeptics.


Known locally as the "lake bottom," Roseau Lake historically covered about 6,000 surface acres with a maximum depth of about 5 feet under normal conditions. The lake was drained for agriculture in 1914, but the low, pancake-flat area is prone to flooding that in recent years has become more frequent.

The lake was drained into the Roseau River, a Red River tributary that flows into the Red in Manitoba.

Three scenarios

The Roseau Lake proposal consists of three "scenarios" of varying size, scope and cost. Each scenario includes a series of embankments, weirs and water control structures that would allow water managers to hold water in the lake bottom during high-water periods and gradually meter it out based on a set operating plan as river levels stabilized.

The lake would be drawn down every fall. Currently, there's no way to control the water either entering or leaving the lake bottom.

"As the lake bottom fills up, it fills up before the channel downstream is at capacity, so we're losing a lot of that actual peak flood storage," said Tracy Halstensgard, administrator of the Roseau River Watershed District. "As it's draining down, it's competing with all those downstream adjacent landowners for river capacity."

Depending on the scenario, project cost estimates range from $11 million to as high as $22 million. Each scenario can be altered based on information gathered during the planning and public input processes.

"It's really dual purpose," Halstensgard said. "We'll be gaining flood damage reduction benefit but also quite a bit of natural resource enhancement that will be made public."


The DNR owns 4,000 acres of lake bottom on the north side of the Roseau River, where most of the water would be stored. Depending on precipitation and runoff, the lake bottom can look like a sea of marsh and meadow grass or a huge, shallow lake.

It's a magnet for ducks when conditions are right.

"They really like the water where you can still see the grass sticking out of it," Prachar said. "We're looking at trying to get a little more stable situation for that type of habitat.

"We don't have a way to keep shallow water in it; that's our problem right now."

No decisions yet

The project is in the "alternative analysis" stage, Halstensgard says, and a project team is meeting regularly to determine the best alternative. The watershed district hosted an open house on the project last June, and HDR Engineering of Thief River Falls in October completed a preliminary report outlining the three scenarios.

The project area also includes more than 2,000 acres of private land, mainly south of the river. The watershed district either would buy land or purchase easements, depending on location and landowner preference, on lands at risk of frequent flooding, Halstensgard says.

Other steps in the lengthy process of obtaining permits for the project include archaeological surveys, wetland delineations, environmental assessments and additional public input.


"All that incidental work needs to be done-you can't skip steps," Prachar said. "If you do, you're going to come back and have to do them.

"It's a huge project. We're measuring time in years."

The DNR has received $2.76 million in Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Fund money for preliminary project work, and the watershed district's request for $500,000 in project funding for this year is tied in with legislation Minnesota lawmakers are considering for flood-damage reduction projects across the state, Halstensgard said.

The watershed district will request additional funding in future legislative sessions and has applied for cost-share funding from the Red River Watershed Management Board, she said, a process that requires several steps.

Project partners continue to explore a variety of state funding sources.

Best-case scenario, project work could begin in two years, Braaten says. In the meantime, much work remains.

"It's a long process of choosing alternatives," Prachar said. "There are still a lot of questions as to what this is going to look like."

Project skeptics

Landowners on the south side of the river also have questions about the project and its impact on their livelihoods.

"As far as the landowners in the lake bottom go, not all of them are in favor of this," said Mitch Magnusson of Roseau, who farms about 2,000 acres on the south side of the Roseau River and serves on a citizens advisory committee for the project. "It all depends on the operation of it. If they can show that it can be helpful to us, we'd probably jump on board with it, but at this point in time, it just doesn't appear like it."

Magnusson says he'd rather see a project to control water entering the lake bottom from upstream, where ditch cleanup and improvement projects in Lost River and Beltrami Island state forests are moving water faster than ever.

"If they put holding areas in there, for very little dollars they could do lots of flood damage reduction," Magnusson said. "I think they should take the money and take it upstream and try to slow the water down and then come back to do the lake bottom project."

Halstensgard said the watershed district is exploring a project on the south branch of the Roseau River in Beltrami forest, but that doesn't diminish the opportunity the Roseau Lake Project presents.

"We do want to pursue all the opportunities that present themselves for helping to manage water in the district," she said. "We encourage people to be a part of the planning process, even if they're not in favor of the project."

Norm Kveen, a Roseau native from Brookfield, Wis., owns lake bottom land he rents to Magnusson. His family's ties to the lake bottom go back more than 100 years, Kveen says, and he doesn't want to lose that connection.

Watershed and DNR staff know his feelings, Kveen says.

"I'm very concerned, and I'm easy to get along with," he said. "I'm afraid, to put it any other way, that if I just sit back in my easy chair and say 'Don't worry about it, it will be OK,' that it won't be. All of a sudden they run the bus over me. It's harder to be against it if they won't tell you what they're trying to do."

Braaten says he's heard the skepticism from landowners on the south side of the river.

"This is the tough sell," he said. "It's tough to tell the people when you try to explain it to them the benefits you're going to receive. Some are getting it. We ask the one question: What do you lose now-six years out of 10 (to flooding)? What happens if we can get that down to two?"

• On the Web:

For more information on the proposed project, go to

Roseau Lake Project at a glance

• In 1914, Roseau Lake was drained by constructing drainage ditches for agricultural purposes.

• Since 1949, there have been discussions to create a project on the site to promote flood risk reduction to some extent in the basin. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have developed projects for Roseau Lake, but ultimately all previous attempts at projects have stalled due to lack of funding or lack of sustained interest.

• In a renewed effort to examine the problem, the Roseau River Watershed District has begun the project planning process and preliminary engineering.

• The project is located 5½ miles northwest of Roseau, Minn., and 3½ miles south of the Canadian border. The total drainage area of the project is 1,085 square miles. The primary sources of water for Roseau Lake are the Roseau River, Sprague Creek and Pine Creek.

• The watershed has experienced significant landscape impacts in the form of extensive ditching in an attempt to improve agricultural production from the lands. Due to this ditching effort, the time it takes for water to reach the lake basin has been decreased causing inflows to the lake basin to have higher peaks with shorter durations.

• More info:

-- Roseau River Watershed District

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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