Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Shawn Jansen
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

Feasibility study needed to address high water


January 2, 2020

The next step in addressing the high water levels of Sturgeon Lake is to conduct a feasibility study. That was suggested by a citizen committee assembled to study the high water issue as well as Pine County Engineer Mark LeBrun and affirmed by Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Hydrologist Heidi Lindgren, at a special meeting that packed Windemere Town Hall on December 17.

Lindgren said the study was necessary due to many factors that needed consideration in determining a solution. Some of those she mentioned include:

– The lakes of the area are connected together and none have a natural outflow. They are essentially bowls.

– Eurasian watermilfoil, an aquatic invasive species, is present in Sturgeon Lake, so care must be taken to prevent its spread to other lakes and beyond.

– If water is pumped or removed from Sturgeon Lake, it cannot flood anyone out downstream.

– Environmental assessments will need to be completed for proposed solutions.

– Flowage easements may need to be purchased for flooded properties.

Size of the problem

Windemere Township Chair John Wesely began the meeting saying, “We know there’s a problem.” He said he wanted to identify a short term and long term solution to the high water problems lakeshore owners are experiencing.

A snapshot of those problems were presented by landowners living on Sturgeon and area lakes and an ad hoc committee established by the Windemere Township Lakes Association earlier this summer to figure out what is happening.

Annette said she lives on the south side of Sturgeon Lake and due to the high water table, has water coming from behind her house. She has a sump pump running continuously, and her storage building is now in wetlands.

“We need something now,” she said.

Jim Anderson said he has owned his property for 15 years and is also getting water coming from both sides. He said he has lost 30 feet of his backyard. “I worry about my septic system,” he said. He also said there is a 450-job backlog for contracting drain tile work to be done on people’s basements.

Mark Dunaski, board member of the Lakes Association, said the information the committee gathered, though not scientific, would hopefully be helpful in seeing the scope of the problem. He advocated for a short term solution before spring when all the snow begins to melt and raises levels even higher.

Dunaski explained the committee compiled the results from the 94 responses that indicated damage out of 277 people surveyed. He stated the damages total at least $1.22 million, and that is not accurate because less than half the respondents did not quantify their damage in the survey because they didn’t know if they could even fix it, nor did some specify if the damages listed were estimated, paid, or bid.

Dunaski said the lake level is at a record high, and the area had received about 43.5 inches of precipitation for the year by October. He said the annual average is about 31 inches of precipitation. The report is on the Windemere Lakes Association website at

The committee recommended the township and county boards request and fund a study to look at what the future will bring and identify possible mitigation strategies and costs.

Bill from the committee explained the photos provided in the report, two of which show his property’s loss of 277 feet compared to the property as seen in 1962.

He pointed out also that the report was completed in August, and the area has received seven more inches of rain since then, and therefore more properties have been impacted since the report.

Others in the room mentioned high levels on surrounding lakes too, such as Rush and Dago Lakes.

It’s not the first time

The Sturgeon Lake High-Water Committee’s report also delved into the history of the high water problem of Sturgeon Lake. Included in the report were copies of letters from the 1970s during a period when the lake was experiencing record high water levels. The efforts at that time to address the high water were eventually abandoned because the lake went into a low level period, making it harder to garner funding support.

Some people also recalled that old-timers said the high water issues occurred after Interstate 35 was built, which appeared to cut off the natural evaporative surfaces and waterways, plus a great number of trees were cut down, all of which worked together to handle the water.

Suggestions made

Tom Anderson said pumping is not an impossible task. “It’s calculable.” He said they are pumping in Stillwater every day. “It’s done all over the world,” he said.

Later in the meeting, township resident Paul Horgen quantified the problem, estimating that if 1 foot of water across 1 acre is 325,000 gallons, then there are an extra 1.7 billion gallons in Sturgeon Lake.

Horgen said, “If that water was pumped out of Sturgeon Lake, where does that water go?”

A few residents had suggestions for where to place culverts or dig outlets to allow water to flow to the Willow River.

One gentleman pointed out that this area isn’t the only area saturated with water. The high water is present throughout the Great Lakes.

Another pointed out that the pumping idea sounds great but rivers are already swollen.

Officials address issue

Mark LeBrun, Pine County Engineer, said he wished he had an answer and that the problem is very complex. Part of the problem with pumping is that the water keeps coming up from the ground. “Short-term wise,” he said, “I haven’t come up with any solutions.”

He said he spoke with some engineers with some hydrology experience and said they were not optimistic of finding a viable option, “whatever that means,” said LeBrun. He added they thought the feasibility study is an option, and LeBrun estimated it would cost about $30,000. “You’re four to five years out if everything went great,” said LeBrun regarding implementing a solution.

Pine County Land and Resource Manager Caleb Anderson said the county office administers the Wetlands Conservation Act and suggested that anyone contemplating projects should contact his office.

He also said that there are zoning rules in place and should be adhered to so as to not extend problems to others in the future, especially should water levels go down and people forget the issues with the high water.

Ceil Strauss, the state floodplain manager, said that a side issue is that the township is not enrolled in the National Flood Insurance Program so flood insurance is not available. Plus, the township needs to determine if they or the county will be implementing their shoreland management ordinance.

Strauss said the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps do not show the lakes as being in a floodplain, only the river. If those areas are added to floodplain areas, then flood buyouts would be easier, but flood insurance would be required. She said the state could work with the township.

She said flood plain regulations help people build smart. One regulation is that of a minimum low floor for new buildings. Theoretically the low floor elevations should have been followed since the inception of the shoreland regulations put in place across the state 50 years ago.

Wesely asked County Commissioner John Mikrot to see if the county would be willing to chip in on paying for the feasibility study. Wesely said the township could help also.

Wesely said it’s the state’s water, and they should pay for the solution.

State Rep. Mike Sundin said it sounded as though there’s some culpability with the state when the interstate was built that he would be exploring. He was also concerned that the outflow be controlled. Though it is way too late for this year’s bonding cycle, he said once the problem is identified and a solution designed, he would be more than willing to help on the financial end of it.

“This is not a political issue, it’s a community issue that needs to be solved,” said Sundin.

State Sen. Jason Rarick said he would work to fund the DNR for priority work, and that this project is likely one to two bonding cycles away. He said they could start the process to look at what other sources are available, and he could help prod the Minnesota Department of Transportation to look at what they’ve done.


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