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Heidi Shaffer, Published January 17 2011

Frustrations running high as Otter Tail River goes up and down 'like a yo-yo'

Homeowners along the Otter Tail River near Fergus Falls, Minn., breathed a sigh of relief last month as floodwaters receded in their backyards after an ice jam was broken up.

But comfort was short-lived as the river has continued to fluctuate by as much as 6 inches in a given day according to Maurice Skogen.

Skogen is one of the three homeowners in the Rus Dic Circle neighborhood most affected by the flooding. He said levels remain higher than anyone in the area can ever recall.

“It’s like a yo-yo,” Skogen said. “It goes up and down every day.”

And respite doesn’t seem likely any time soon. The neighbors are starting to realize this is a fight that will likely rage all winter, Skogen said.

The Otter Tail is flowing at four times its normal rate, said Julie Aadland, a hydrologist in the Fergus Falls Department of Natural Resources office.

Aadland said the record levels are “purely climatic” and a result of the record rainfall in Otter Tail County last summer when the area received 12 inches more than normal.

“If you pull out a map and follow the Otter Tail, every lake is high,” Skogen said. “It’s all gotta come by me. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

All of the dams in the county are running wide open, and everything is at full capacity, said Larry Krohn, Otter Tail County emergency management director.

“There really is no physical thing that can be done to lower water levels,” he said.

The most frustrating part seems to be finding who to turn to for help, said Skogen’s next-door neighbor Doug Seiler.

“I think our issue is just basic lack of information,” Seiler said.

“We still don’t have answers to who’s responsible for that river. There’s no way for us to know whether this situation is being managed,” he said.

Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter took charge of organizing the effort to break up the mid-December ice jam that had waters surging.

“He’s been our white knight,” Seiler said. “But I don’t think it says in Brian’s job (description) to monitor the Otter Tail River.”

Schlueter said the Minnesota DNR is the agency with jurisdiction over river flows, but the sheriff’s office will help the neighborhood if a particular problem, such as an ice jam, can be pinpointed.

The DNR would also assist if a problem could be identified, but right now river levels are simply a reflection of too much water, Aadland said.

It appears county emergency management can’t provide much in terms of help for the homeowners.

“Protecting private property is something that is really left to the home­owner,” Krohn said. “Emergency management really comes into play when it’s more life-safety issues.”

Neighbors are questioning whether dams along the Otter Tail are playing a part in their flooding problem.

Otter Tail Power Company has five dams along the river. The homeowners experiencing flooding are located between two of the dams, said Cris Kling, an Otter Tail Power spokeswoman.

By permit, Otter Tail cannot do anything to fluctuate water levels under federal regulations, Kling said.

Levels on the river are high, and Otter Tail Power crews are monitoring their dams to ensure debris is not holding up flows, Kling said.

The high water coupled with the amount of ice and snow already on his property has Seiler and the other neighbors worried about what the spring melt will bring.

“All we can do is pray it doesn’t get any worse,” Skogen said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511