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Water managers take public comment after seven floods at Minnesota-Canada border

The water levels on Minnesota's border lakes have been managed the same way for 15 years, and during seven of those the area has been hit with high water and floods.

This week, the International Joint Commission, the agency in charge of regulating lakes along the U.S.-Canadian border, is holding a series of public meetings to decide whether water levels should be managed differently.

The meetings are scattered across the area in Minnesota and Canada. According to Matt DeWolfe, co-chairman of the International Rule Curves Study Board, public meetings are part of a scheduled review of water level management.

The Namakan Chain of Lakes, Kabetogama and Rainy Lake are linked by three dams, two on the east end and a big hydroelectric dam to the west at International Falls that regulates water levels in the whole system.

Engineers adjust the water levels on a seasonal schedule called the rule curve. In 2000, they adjusted the curve up to keep more water in the system.

Now, after more than 15 years, DeWolfe said it's time to take a look back and see how that rule curve affected the area.

"Over the last number years," he said, "the IJC has funded several dozen studies to look at a whole range of factors to see what the effects were."

Researchers looked at lake ecology and the economy of the region, he said. They also investigated a series of high water events, including a record setting flood in 2014 that brought in the National Guard.

These floods affected homes and businesses along hundreds of miles of lakeshore in both Minnesota and Canada. Much of Voyageurs National Park flooded in 2014, eroding some archaeological sites.

DeWolfe said it's nearly impossible to find a definitive cause for the floods. Weather patterns in the area have shifted dramatically in the last 15 years, he said.

But management at the dams might also play a role.

"With this curve, the flood peaks would be slightly higher," he said. "And that's what we've seen. So that was an expected outcome, traded off against some ecological benefits."

IJC officials will discuss the preliminary results of the studies at their public meetings and take comments. They'll make recommendations on any changes to the rule curve early next year.

The first meeting was Wednesday evening at the Rainy River Community College in International Falls.

Another meeting will be held at 7 tonight at the Crane Lake Chapel in Crane Lake, Minn.

Minnesota Public Radio News can be heard in Duluth at 100.5 FM or online at MPRNews.org.

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