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Governor tours flooded homes; International Falls water and sewer plants threatened

Cody Kelly, 12, of International Falls, paddles his kayak down the driveway, now a river, of a home in Pelland Junction. Kelly came to volunteer to help anyone he could.1 / 5
Volunteers from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints work with local people to sandbag a home on Elk Bay on Rainy Lake Monday afternoon.2 / 5
Volunteers and community members are pulled by tractor as they over to sandbag the Loman Fire Hall on Highway 11 west of International Falls Monday.3 / 5
Sandbagging machine used to fill sandbags for use in flooded areas around International Falls.4 / 5
Cole Story of Ranier walks along the submerged dock at Tara's Wharf in Ranier on Monday afternoon after he and volunteers placed barrels and totes filled with water on top of the dock in Rainy Lake to keep it from floating away.5 / 5

RANIER — The sun was shining Tuesday, but lakes and streams were still rising all along the Minnesota-Ontario border waters region.

Truckloads of sand were rolling in, and filled sand bags rolling out, as part of a breakneck effort to keep floodwaters out of homes and businesses as the Rainy River surpassed record levels and Rainy Lake approached its high-water mark.

Sandbagging also continued on Crane and Kabetogama lakes and on parts of the Ontario side of the vast, interconnected system of lakes and rivers.

“As bad as it is, this is only going to get worse. There’s more water coming down the system and there’s more rain forecast for the weekend. It could be weeks until we see any real drop in the water levels,” said Rob Ecklund, Koochiching County commissioner.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton toured the area Tuesday morning, including a massive sand-bagging operation at the city beach. He praised volunteers who have worked for days to save homes, resorts and cabins from flooding, calling their work “inspiring.”

“It’s a disaster. … But crises like this bring out the best in some people,” Dayton said,

“It’s real devastation. To see that much water spread out that wide,” Dayton said after touring flooded homes in the Pelland Junction area just west of International Falls.

The governor said he will wait for local officials to list public and private damage reports before potentially authorizing emergency aid from a new state fund created by the 2014 Legislature. There’s $3 million in the account and available.

“This will be the first time we’ve had a situation to use it,” the governor said, adding that he’d call a special legislative session if more money is needed.

International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson said crews were working to save both the city’s water treatment and sewage treatment plants from flooding. which could shut the systems down. A temporary clay dike around the sewage treatment plant didn't hold up well, but a second, sandbag dike appears to be holding the still-rising Rainy River at bay, Anderson said.

“At the water plant, we have about another foot” before the system is compromised by high water on Rainy Lake, Anderson said. If that happens, the city could lose its water supply, he said.

Hydrologists say Rainy Lake could rise another foot or more before dropping and that it could be well into July before near normal levels are seen — assuming rainfall returns to normal levels after a record rainy June.

The sheer volume of water also is threatening the Boise paper mill in downtown International Falls. About 20 inches of water has flooded the hydropower turbine generator facility at the mill, but the electric system continued to generate Tuesday, Anderson said. If the system fails, seven gates on the dam between International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario, would have to be closed, causing even more water to back up into Rainy Lake. That happened Monday on the Fort Frances side of the dam when that mill closed three gates, Anderson said.

Ecklund and Koochiching County Sheriff Brian Jespersen said Tuesday that additional volunteers were expected to arrive from Winnipeg and Duluth later this week. But Ecklund said that the Borderland community was probably running on empty after nearly a week of battling high water, and it may need more help.

“I think it’s just a matter of time before we put out the call for more volunteers. Maybe as early as (today),” Ecklund said. “Our people are getting tired.”

State Rep. Dave Dill escorted the governor around the flooded region Tuesday morning and stressed that the flood isn’t just a short-term natural disaster.

“This is going to be a long-term business disaster for some, considering this is the peak of the (tourist) season. You can’t ever get back what you’ve lost now” in the resort business, Dill noted.

Dill excused himself from his official business Tuesday afternoon saying he needed to quickly return to his island home on Crane Lake. The flood he’d been monitoring as a state official was becoming very personal.

“I’ve got to go sandbag my place,” Dill said. “My father built the place in the ’40s and we’ve never had water anywhere near it.”

Until now.

As of Tuesday, Dill said there’s just a few feet separating the home from the lake.