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Bloated Lake Threatening North Dakota Town Again

Sat April 24, 2010 - Midwest Edition

KATHRYN, N.D. (AP) Almost a year after worried authorities went door to door warning residents to flee as water carved through a nearby dam, this tiny North Dakota town is facing the possibility of having to evacuate again because of flooding.

Fueled by runoff from a winter of heavy snow, water is swiftly rising behind the Clausen Springs Dam. And Kathryn’s 55 citizens are frustrated that nothing has been done to repair or replace the damaged dam that threatens to break and inundate this blink-and-you-miss-it community, about 60 miles southwest of the state’s biggest city of Fargo.

“We’re just an itty-bitty town and we don’t carry any clout,” Mayor Dave Majerus said. “If that dam was above Fargo, there would be some concern and definitely something would get done.”

Flood worries extend far beyond Fargo and other North Dakota and Minnesota communities along the north-flowing Red River. Heavy, wet snow has caused widespread flooding for other parts of North Dakota, and several communities such as Linton, Lisbon, LaMoure and Jamestown are being fortified with temporary levees and sandbags to beat back the rising water. In Minto, about 16 homes in the community of 300 are threatened by floodwaters, and residents are frantically using sump pumps to stay dry.

Few of those places, though, are as worried as Kathryn.

Stray cats are sometimes more likely to be seen than residents in the town, which boasts little more than a bar, a post office and a church.

The problem with the dam near Kathryn is that it was built before state safety standards were in place. The Clausen Springs Dam, which is tucked within rare wooded rolling hills in the area, is fed by a creek that collects runoff from 100 square miles of mostly flat farmland.

The earthen dam is about 50 ft. high and 700 ft. long and holds back a lake about the size of 50 football fields. It was built in 1967 for fishing and recreation — not for flood control, said Harlan Opdahl, a Barnes County commissioner.

Kathryn residents were evacuated for a few days last April after flooding began eroding the dam’s spillway a few miles from town. Trucks hauled in clay and rocks to fortify the earthen spillway and North Dakota National Guard soldiers in helicopters dropped more than 100 one-ton sandbags to help shore it up.

The little town was spared extensive flood damage but it led some to wonder whether it was worth spending big money protect it. State and local governments eventually raised $3 million “by pulling a few strings” to replace the dam but the work may come too late, the mayor said.

State officials said it took time to scrape together money for work and no one believed the area would be hit with flooding two consecutive years. The town, founded in 1900, never had a flood threat until last year.

“It’s rare to have flooding there one year, let alone back to back,” said Sando, of the North Dakota Water Commission.

No one appears more frustrated than Shirley Sivertson, who along with her husband, Sanford, live on the edge of town. Their home is the first in the path of the water if the dam breaks. Last year, the couple evacuated in minutes and returned a few days later to find water in their basement.

Shirley Sivertson said the couple doesn’t want to have to flee again this year. “We shouldn’t have to be worrying about all this business with the dam,” she said.

“This whole town is sitting on pins and needles,” she said. “If the governor was standing in front of me right now, I’d tell him: ’Get with it man! We’re just a town of 55 people but we’re just as dang gone important as anybody else.”’

A new dam designed to handle major flooding is expected to be built later this year, Sando said. Jon Kelsch, the state Water Commission’s construction chief, said it was a challenge to redesign the dam with only $3 million. Initial designs were overbuilt and too expensive. A no-frills design that will do the job has finally been crafted, he said.

Opdahl has advocated breaching the dam by cutting a channel through it for a controlled release of water until a permanent fix can be made. But sportsmen in the area balked, he said. “I think we should have siphoned it off until we figured out a plan then we wouldn’t be in this situation,” Opdahl said.

Opdahl and others believe that a valve on an outflow pipe used to drain the dam has been tampered with in the past to keep the lake level high for better angling.

The drain is now completely open and is being monitored daily, Opdahl said.

That doesn’t make residents worry less, or diminish frustration that their neighbors in Fargo and Moorhead seem to get so much more help than they do.

“They’ve been worrying about Fargo and Minnesota instead of fooling with us,” Opdahl said.

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