Anderson: Rainy Lake watershed shows vulnerability to flooding – and possibly mining

The flooding at the Minnesota-Ontario border is a disaster of historic proportions – a fact perhaps not fully appreciated due to its distance from the Twin Cities and other metropolitan areas.

So historic that water levels above the record flood of 1950 have been measured at Rainy Lake and Crane Lake, among other lakes and rivers in the watershed.

Covering nearly 5 million acres, much of which is low lying and filled with water even when not flooded, the watershed stands out because every ounce of excess water it contains, at the east of the International Falls, must flow through the relatively narrow Rainy River.

Additionally, a dam on the river at International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario, controls the rate at which water from the drainage—which extends as far east as the Gunflint Trail—can exit Rainy Lake and water flowing into it.

While the flooding is causing millions of dollars in property damage and business loss, the costs would be higher, say opponents of a proposed precious metals mine near Ely, if, during a similar weather event, acidic pollutants from mine tailings seeped into the watershed.

“The record high waters and the rains and snows that produced it underscore the unpredictability of weather today and the extremes that are becoming increasingly common,” said the former commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. of Minnesota, Tom Landwehr, who retired last year as executive director of the Campaign to Save Boundary Waters. “Floods like this make it all the more dangerous to build mines that can leach sulphide and other pollutants into highly aquatic areas like the Rainy Lake watershed.”

In Minnesota to the east, drainage begins about 62 miles from Lake Superior. To the northwest, it ends in Kenora, Ontario, where Lake of the Woods empties into the Winnipeg River.

Although 98% of the watershed is undeveloped, much of it provides timber and, for several thousand people each year, recreation.

Many watershed business owners attempt to limit damage to their facilities until the waters recede. But that won’t happen overnight. By some estimates, a raindrop that falls in the extreme northeast of the watershed takes six weeks to leave the watershed to the northwest.

Here is a spot check with resort owners in the watershed:

Gunflint Lake“Gunflint Lake has dropped about a foot from its peak,” said John Fredrikson, who along with his wife, Mindy, owns Gunflint Lodge. “We continue to collect docks, however, that are floating in the lake. We pull them out, take a photo and put them on Facebook to find their owners.

“Last year, our dock wedging was 3 feet above water. It was a foot and a half underwater this spring. We put a couple tons of cinder blocks on it to hold it in place. The weather hasn’t been great, cool and wet, and business is a little off from last year.

“We haven’t heard of any huge problems with paddlers in the BWCA. In some cases they have to traverse higher ground on portages and in some cases wade through deep water. But in general it seems OK.

“The upside is that the fishing has been great. One of our guides was out on Gunflint the other day and brought in 44 walleyes, eight of which were over 28″.

“After last year with the drought and the fires, well, high water is not good. But I guess it’s better.”

crane lake“We’ve never seen water levels like this,” said Jerry Pohlman, who along with his wife, Brenda, owns Nelson’s Resort on Crane Lake. “We broke the 1950 record here last week.

“We have seven of our cabins that we cannot use at the moment. It’s pretty bad. Our surviving docks so far are under water. Others have been destroyed by wind and waves .

“Everyone here, all the companies, are doing what they can to keep their business going. We keep launching customers’ boats. We have a pick-up that we use for that, we don’t let them launch the boats themselves. And every night we take out the boats, because we don’t have docks.

“We have our office and lodge full of sandbags, with pumps running. There is some debris in the lake, but generally that hasn’t been a problem. I assume there was a 500 pound propane tank floating in Sand Point Lake the other day someone is missing.

“But the fishing was good. Really good, early on. A kid here caught a 28-inch walleye and later caught a 60-inch sturgeon. That’s pretty good.”

rainy lake“My husband, Jeff, and I have owned Sha Sha Resort here on Rainy for 14 years,” said Jodi Herberg. “My husband is from International Falls, but I grew up in New Hope. Our freshman year was the coldest summer on record. We also had drought. And COVID. Now record flooding.

“We are lucky that our resort is up high, away from the water. We have had guests in our cabins since May 20. We are doing our best to operate. Our bar and restaurant are open, as are those of the other resorts in the Rainy, and we are grateful for local customers who stop by and those who come to help.

“People, our customers, see the flood on the news. They call and some are ready to cancel. So I educate them. The fishing is good, and our customers can travel by boat to the Canadian side of Rainy and fish, if they want, as long as they don’t touch the ground. I tell all this to the customers who call, worried about the flood. I’m in damage control, you might say.

Northwest Corner, Lake of the Woods“We’re in business,” said Brian Sage of Sage’s Angle West Resort. “We have docks, although we had to buy 20 meters of gravel to be able to walk to them without stepping in the water.

“The water is still rising on Lake of the Woods. We looked pretty good for a while, with the inflow from the Rainy River easing off a bit. Then we had some rain [on Tuesday and Wednesday]over an inch and a half, with rumors that they were over 4 inches farther north.

“Several resorts here have closed. We had a very strong northwesterly wind and the docks were destroyed or just washed away.

“But the fishing was good. Really good. And you can fish in Canadian waters of Lake of the Woods, and even have lunch ashore if you have the right paperwork.”

About Patricia Kilgore

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