Flooding along U.S.-Canadian border prompts National Guard response
The good news for flood-weary residents along the Minnesota-Ontario border is that the amount of water moving through local rivers dropped a bit Wednesday after having peaked on Tuesday.
The bad news is that there’s a good chance of more rain from today through the weekend.
“It’s looking like a good inch (of additional rainfall) over much the area in the next few days, and there’s just no where for that water to go,” said Matt DeWolfe, executive engineer for the Lake of the Woods Control Board.
And even as some rivers dipped at midweek, officials predict Rainy Lake could rise another foot or more in coming days, breaching sandbag dikes, flooding more roads and causing even more damage.
Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday authorized 100 Minnesota National Guard personnel to assist volunteers working to protect property, Koochiching County Commissioner Rob Ecklund said. And officials said several more groups of volunteers are coming to help.
The Guard unit is expected to arrive tonight.
“We’re also expecting to ask for a state incident command team. This is getting to be a little too much for just the county and the city (International Falls) to handle,” Ecklund said. “Having the Guard come in will be a big help.”
The Rainy River at Manitou Rapids, downstream from International Falls, peaked at an all-time high of 22.01 feet on Tuesday but then dropped a bit to 21.67 feet on Wednesday — still higher than any previous flood.
In other good news, upstream, near Squirrel Island where the water system flows from Namakan Lake into Rainy Lake, the flow appeared to have peaked Tuesday at 341.55 meters above sea level before falling slightly to 341.54 on Wednesday. And, farther upstream, the Vermilion River, where it enters Crane Lake, dropped from more than 13 feet earlier this week to 12.86 feet on Wednesday, according to U.S. Geological Service data.
Those depths indicate that less water is flowing in from the south and east after rising for nearly a week.
But the high water isn’t going away anytime soon. Rainy Lake continues to receive more water than it can expel, and the level is expected to rise for several more days, DeWolfe said, perhaps 12-15 inches more. That’s bad news for cabins, home and resort owners along the lake who have struggled to keep the water out of their buildings. Even without more rain it would take weeks for lake water levels to drop to normal levels.
“Another 15 inches would be really bad,” Ecklund said. “If we get much rain it could get even higher than that.”
On Wednesday the International Rainy/Lake of the Woods Watershed Board said water depth on the downstream side of the hydroelectric dam on the Rainy River was near “a critical elevation.” So much water was entering the Rainy River below the dam, from tributaries in Minnesota and Ontario, that the river actually backed up and is threatening to flood the electric turbines, DeWolfe said.
The dam stretches between International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario, and is shared by paper mills on both sides of the river for electric power generation.
The downstream water level is critical because if it gets any deeper, hydroelectric “generators would have to be shut down,” the board said in an emergency update Wednesday. That would force gates on the dam to close, causing bigger flooding problems upstream in Rainy Lake.
“The river was literally backing up (upstream) into the generator areas, and that’s something I don’t think anyone ever contemplated when they designed the dam 100 years ago. This is something no one has ever seen,” DeWolfe said.
The border flooding situation is worst at the narrowest point of the huge system that drains water from as far east as Gunflint Lake in Cook County, as far south as Eveleth on the Iron Range, and as far north as Ignace, Ontario.
All of the water from the land area flows north and west — through the International Falls-Fort Frances bottleneck — on to Lake of the Woods and then much farther north, all the way to Hudson Bay.