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Flood warning issued for huge area along Minnesota-Ontario border

Rainy River watershed has seen rapid snowmelt, record rains in recent weeks.

2014 flooding Rainy Lake
Water levels on Minnesota-Ontario border lakes and rivers are rising and could reach flood levels seen in 2014, when this photo was taken as volunteers placed sandbags along a home on Rainy Lake. The National Weather Service has issued a flood warning for the Rainy Lake watershed until June 1 due to record rainfall and melting snow happening at nearly the same time.
Bob King / 2014 file / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Much of the Rainy River watershed along the Minnesota-Ontario border is under a flood warning issued Tuesday that lasts until June 1 as a combination of melting snow and heavy rains have pushed lakes and rivers to flood stages.

The high water impacts areas from Lake Vermilion all the way to Lake of the Woods, with near-record high water levels already reported on Namakan Lake.

With more rain on the way, the National Weather Service in Duluth says water levels may not peak and begin to recede for two weeks or more.

Water levels could reach as high as the summer of 2014 when communities along the border lakes and rivers saw widespread flooding, forcing residents to sandbag homes and businesses, and causing extensive damage.

The flood warning includes Lake Vermilion, Crane Lake, Namakan Lake, Kabetogama Lake and Rainy Lake — including Voyageurs National Park. All that water then flows down the Rainy River into Lake of the Woods on its way to Hudson Bay. The Lake of the Woods Control Board scheduled an emergency online public meeting Tuesday evening to discuss the flooding danger.

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“Spring snowmelt, record April precipitation and frequent May rain events have created strong hydrologic responses within the Rainy Lake basin,” the Weather Service noted. “Many tributaries to Rainy Lake continue showing strong inflows with continued upward trends. Strong lake rises within the Rainy Lake Basin are ongoing and are expected to continue for at least the next week to 10 days."

The Weather Service is forecasting more heavy rain potential through the weekend.

On Monday morning the level of Namakan Lake was 1,118.6 feet above sea level and still rising, just 18 inches shy of the 2014 level that saw flooding and damage. The Rainy River — which has dropped some over the past week but is expected to rise again in coming days — was flowing at 52,700 cubic feet per second on Tuesday, more than three times the median level of 17,400 cubic feet per second.

Dams at Kettle Falls, where the water leaves Namakan Lake and flows into Rainy Lake, and in International Falls, where the water leaves Rainy Lake and pours down the Rainy River, are now wide open with maximum release, sending a torrent of water down to Lake of the Woods.

In response to the influx of water, the International Lake of the Woods Control Board opened the dam in Kenora, Ontario, on May 7 to increase the amount of water flowing out of Lake of the Woods and into the Winnipeg River. But water is flowing into the big lake at more than double the rate it can flow out.

On Monday, the level of Lake of the Woods was approaching 1,061 feet above sea level. That’s approaching levels seen in June 2014, when Lake of the Woods rose to 1,062.8 feet above sea level and caused extensive flooding.

The flooding comes just eight months after many of the border lakes saw near record-low water levels after a summer-long drought left lakes feet below their normal levels.

April precipitation was the highest on record for the Lake of the Woods-Rainy-Namakan watersheds, the Weather Service noted.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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