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Extreme high water levels continue to cause problems on Lake of the Woods and other border waters

It’s a mess, the result of a late snowmelt after a winter of heavy snow in the border country and record or near-record precipitation the past two months across the watershed.

Rusty Myers.jpg
A shed at the Rusty Myers Flying Service floatplane base in Fort Frances, Ontario, was partially submerged Saturday, May 28, 2022, by high water on Rainy Lake, but the flying service remains in operation. Lakes and rivers along the Minnesota-Ontario border are at or near record levels, the result of heavy winter snowfall followed by a late snowmelt and record precipitation in April and May. All of the docks along the shoreline at right were submerged.
Brad Dokken / Grand Forks Herald
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LAKE OF THE WOODS, Minn. – Things are going from bad to worse on Lake of the Woods and other Minnesota-Canada border waters, as resort owners, property owners and others scramble to keep ever-rising water levels from doing further damage to docks, boathouses and other property.

Simply put, it’s a mess, the result of a late snowmelt after a winter of heavy snow in the border country and record or near-record precipitation the past two months across the watershed.

“It’s pretty sad, really,” said Dick Myers, who lives at Flag Island on Minnesota’s Northwest Angle. “We went through two years of border closure (because of COVID) and now this.”

According to the Lake of the Woods Control Board, Lake of the Woods on Thursday was at 1,062.6 feet above sea level, higher than the 2014 peak of 1,062.29 but below the record of 1,064 feet set in July 1950.

READ MORE FLOOD-RELATED COVERAGE:
The project assesses the natural hazards that pose a risk to the county — such as tornadoes, straight line winds, ice storms, blizzards, wildfires, flooding and extreme temperatures — and identifies ways to minimize the damage from those natural hazards in the future.

The big lake was expected to rise another 4 to 5 inches over the next seven days, with the rate depending on rainfall, the LWCB said, and could hit record levels depending on rainfall across the watershed in the next couple of weeks.

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Water flowing down the Rainy River into Lake of the Woods from Rainy Lake and other areas farther upstream in the basin continues to exceed the capacity at which it can flow out through the Norman Dam in Kenora, Ontario, and into the Winnipeg River. According to LWCB statistics, the inflow as of Thursday, June 2, was more than 70,000 cubic feet per second, while the outflow was slightly more than 50,000 cfs.

Among the casualties – and there are many – Flag Island Resort on Wednesday said it was temporarily closing the resort “for the safety of our guests and staff” because of rising water levels.

The resort said it would reassess the situation on Sunday, June 5.

A video posted Wednesday on the resort’s Facebook page put the scope of the disaster into perspective, showing damaged and destroyed docks floating in the water as strong winds pummeled the shoreline. Rising floodwaters were creeping ever closer to at least one cabin on the resort grounds.

Myers said he knew of at least one other resort that had lost docks, as well. Resorts along the south shore of the big lake also are battling high water.

“The water’s so high, (docks) are mostly just floating and the waves just tear them apart,” Myers said.

In Warroad, Minnesota, on the big lake’s southwest shore, water levels have already surpassed the 2014 flood, but there’s no immediate threat to any of the city’s infrastructure, Police Chief Wade Steinbring said Friday.

The boat ramp and docks in the Point area near the mouth of the Warroad River are submerged and may have to be replaced, and the bike path may need repairs. But until the water goes down, it’s difficult to determine the extent of the damage, Steinbring said.

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Springsteel Resort north of Warroad has been sandbagging for several days, he said.

City crews likely will begin setting up Aqua Dam flood barriers next week in an area from the old Seven Clans Casino site, across the Point area and around to Taylor Road if the lake continues to rise, Steinbring said. The city has enough of the vinyl bladders to protect about 1,300 feet of shoreline up to a lake level of 1,067 feet, he said.

The LWCB predicts the lake will rise another 4 to 5 inches in the next week, but an east wind would push lake levels in Warroad even higher, said Steinbring, who also is the city’s emergency manager.

“That could raise our end of the lake up a good 8 to 12 inches just from heavy winds pushing water our way,” he said. “Thankfully, the next week looks like it’s going to be good and there’s no precipitation, which would help, but the lake doesn’t go down overnight.

“It’s going to be this high for a long time.”

On the Canadian side of the lake, Ballard’s Black Island near Morson, Ontario, on Wednesday said it was closing for the next two weeks because of “extreme flood conditions.” Ballard’s also operates a resort on the Rainy River near Baudette, Minnesota, which is open.

The damage isn’t limited to Lake of the Woods. On Rainy Lake, Northern Wilderness Outfitters in Fort Frances, Ontario, has closed up shop and canceled all of its fly-in fishing trips until July 1 because its floatplane base, including the main office, is flooded.

Meanwhile, much of Voyageurs National Park on the Minnesota side of the lake is temporarily closed.

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“Many communities have declared states of emergency with homes, businesses, and community infrastructure such as sewage treatment plants at risk,” the LWCB said. “This is a full regional flooding event that is without precedent on record, and beyond the capacity of any dams in the system to manage. Many water level gauges across the region have reported new records for lake and river water levels and river flows.”

Given the scope of the disaster, Myers at Flag Island said he has reached out to state legislators to get the Minnesota side of the lake designated as a disaster area. Myers said he talked to state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, on Wednesday, and she told him she has made some calls about getting the Lake of the Woods area declared a disaster area.

Governors can request a presidential disaster declaration, which unlocks federal assistance for a variety of public and private infrastructure programs.

“We need some publicity,” Myers said. “The rest of the state doesn’t even know we exist up here.

“If it were Minneapolis or down in southern Minnesota someplace, it would be headline news, but like I say, no one knows about us up here or cares.”

Best-case scenario, high water in the border country will linger for at least the next several weeks. Meanwhile, Myers said he has some friends coming up to the Angle next week for a visit.

“I told them to bring their boots,” he said.

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 bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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