Anderson: Rainy Lake watershed shows vulnerability to flooding — and possibly mining
Flooding on 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 metro areas.
So historic that water levels topping those of the record 1950 flood have been measured at Rainy Lake and Crane Lake, among other lakes and rivers in the watershed.
Encompassing nearly 5 million acres, much of it low and water-filled even when not flooded, the watershed is distinctive because every ounce of excessive water within it, east of International Falls, must drain through the comparatively narrow Rainy River.
Additionally, a dam on the river at International Falls and Fort Frances, Ontario, controls the flow at which water in the drainage — which extends as far east as the Gunflint Trail — can exit Rainy Lake and the waters that flow into it.
While the flood is causing millions of dollars in property damage and business losses, costs would be greater, opponents of a proposed precious metals mine near Ely say, if, during a similar weather event, acidic pollutants from mine tailings leached into the watershed.
“The record high water and the rains and snows that produced it underscore the unpredictability of weather these days and the extremes that are becoming more common,” said former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who retired last year as executive director of the Campaign to Save the Boundary Waters. “Floods like this make it all the more dangerous to build mines with the potential to leach sulfide and other pollutants into highly aquatic areas like the Rainy Lake watershed.”
In Minnesota, in the east, the drainage begins about 62 miles from Lake Superior. In the northwest, it ends at Kenora, Ontario, where Lake of the Woods spills into the Winnipeg River.
Though 98% of the watershed is undeveloped, much of it provides timber and, for many thousands of people every year, recreation.
Many business owners in the watershed are trying to limit damage to their facilities until waters recede. But that won’t happen overnight. By some estimates, a drop of rain that falls in the far northeast corner of the watershed takes six weeks to exit the watershed in the northwest.
Here’s a spot-check with resort owners in the watershed:
Gunflint Lake: “Gunflint Lake has come down a foot or so from its peak,” said John Fredrikson, who with his wife, Mindy, owns Gunflint Lodge. “We’re still collecting docks, though, that are floating in the lake. We pull them in, take a picture and put them on Facebook to find their owners.
“Last year the cribbing on our docks was 3 feet out of the water. It’s been a foot and a half under water this spring. We put a few tons of cinder blocks on it to hold it in place. The weather hasn’t been great, cool and wet, and business is off somewhat from last year as a result.
“We haven’t heard of any huge issues with paddlers in the BWCA. In some cases, they’re having to bushwhack through higher ground at portages, and in some cases wading through deep water. But generally, it seems OK.
“The upside is that fishing has been great. One of our guides was out the other day on Gunflint and boated 44 walleyes, with eight over 28 inches.
“After last year with the drought and fires, well, the high water isn’t good. But I guess this is better.”
Crane Lake: “We’ve never seen water levels like this,” said Jerry Pohlman, who with his wife, Brenda, owns Nelson’s Resort on Crane Lake. “We topped the 1950 record here last week sometime.
“We’ve got seven of our cabins we can’t use right now. It’s pretty bad. Docks of ours that have survived, so far, are under water. Others were destroyed by wind and waves.
“Everybody here, all the businesses, are doing what they can to keep in business. We’re still launching customers’ boats. We have a pickup we use for it; we don’t let them launch boats themselves. And every evening we haul the boats out, because we have no docks.
“We’ve got our office and lodge sandbagged, with pumps running. There’s some debris in the lake, but generally that hasn’t been a problem. I guess there was a 500-pound propane tank floating in Sand Point Lake the other day that someone is missing.
“But fishing’s been good. Really good, right from the opener. 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,” Jodi Herberg said. “My husband is from International Falls, but I grew up in New Hope. Our first year was the coldest summer on record. We’ve also had a drought. And COVID. Now, a record flood.
“We’re fortunate our resort is up high, away from the water. We’ve had customers in our cabins since May 20. We’re doing our best to operate. Our bar and restaurant are open, like those at other resorts on Rainy, and we’re thankful for local customers who stop in, and those who come to help.
“People, customers of ours, are seeing 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 onto the Canadian side of Rainy and fish, if they want, as long as they don’t touch land. I tell all of this to customers who call, worried about the flood. I’m on damage control, you could say.”
Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods: “We’re in business,” said Brian Sage of Sage’s Angle West Resort. “We’ve got docks, though we had to buy 20 yards of gravel so we could walk to them without walking in water.
“The water is still coming up on Lake of the Woods. We were looking pretty good for a while, with the amount of inflow from the Rainy River going down a bit. Then we had rain [on Tuesday and Wednesday], more than an inch and a half, with rumors they had more than 4 inches farther north.
“Several resorts up here have shut down. We had a really strong northwest wind, and docks were destroyed or just floated away.
“But the fishing’s been good. Real good. And you can fish Canadian waters of Lake of the Woods, and even have lunch on shore if you have the right paperwork.”