Farm fears and protected wells: Flood season leaves rural Minn. with one eye on the forecast

The Sand Creek in Jordan, Minn. has flooded its banks
A large ice jam caused Sand Creek in Jordan, Minn., to overflow its banks last week, cutting off access to the Valley Green mobile home community. This was the view on Friday of Syndicate Street with a few cars and trucks stranded with oil leaking into the water.
Brian Peterson | Star Tribune via AP

First it was the ice jams.

And while those capricious creek-cloggers continue to plague southern Minnesota's waterways, it's the region's rural roads that are bearing the brunt of the springtime melt.

In the meantime, Minnesota farmers are bracing for their latest challenge: dealing with flooded fields and roads this spring. It comes after many across the state saw the roofs of their barns and machine sheds collapse under heavy snow loads.

MPR News reporters are fanned out across the state, talking to Minnesotans about how they're dealing with the unpredictable weather and preparing for possible floods. Here's what we're seeing on Tuesday.

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Farms: Adding flood worries to the challenges of an already tough year

Dairy cows rest in their barn on Jason Reber's farm in Mantorville, Minn.
Dairy cows rest in their barn on Jason Reber's farm in Mantorville, Minn., last week. Reber lost 6 of his 420 cows when one of his barns collapsed under the weight of the heavy late-winter snows.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Drive across the southern half of Minnesota and you'll see plenty of flooded fields. That's not unusual this time of year, but farmers here are keeping close tabs on the pace of the thaw this year, because it could affect their livestock — or how soon they can plant crops this spring.

Katie Brenny raises beef cattle in Mazeppa. She's been slowly moving her herd to dry ground as the snow continues to melt.

"Really, just keeping them out of that water is the best thing we can do," she said. "There's still a lot of snow to come off the hills, around sheds, around the house."

But Brenny's concern doesn't stop there.

"And then the next fear is the great Mississippi and what that looks like, and can we get barges back up to move commodities back and forth," she said. "So as we look at farming and ranching this spring it's going to continue to still be a challenge."

For a lot of Minnesota farmers, it's been rough for a while. They've been dealing with several years of low commodity prices. Some dairy farmers have had to sell their herds because they're losing too much money. Others lost animals this winter when barns collapsed under the weight of heavy snow.

And now, flooding.

"When the weather goes to the extremes, up and down and back and forth, is when you have some more animal health issues," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau. In weather like this, he said, livestock farmers worry about their animals getting sick.

But wet conditions are tough for crop farmers, too, Paap said. He should know: He grows corn and soybeans in Blue Earth County. "The concern now is you need moisture, but the ground is still frozen, so what's happening is it's running off instead of soaking in," he said. "We've got water in places we don't want it."

If the snow doesn't damage buildings or equipment, floodwaters could. Gary Wertish grows crops near Renville, west of the Twin Cities. Because of depressed prices, he said, many farmers won't have the money to fix any damage their farms sustain in the springtime.

"We had a few years back where we made some profits on the farm, but that's gone," said Wertish, who is president of the Minnesota Farmers Union. "The working capital's gone."

It's left some farmers thinking hard about whether to continue, he said: "Do I keep hanging on? Do I keep burning up my equity or do I exit now?"

For now, farmers are hoping for a slow melt that could keep flooding at a minimum. But after that, they'll need things to dry up quickly so they can get tractors into the fields to plant their crops.

— Elizabeth Dunbar | Red Wing, Minn.

Rural roads: Towns struggling to keep some roads navigable amid thaw

Flooding has been making headlines across the state, but officials say the cold winter and recent rains have been especially hard on Minnesota's rural roads.

Joe Kelly, director of the state's Homeland Security and Emergency Management division, told a meeting of local and federal officials Monday that rural areas have been struggling to keep their roads not only clear, but navigable.

"Last week, we had a lot of rain, which just turned them in some parts of the state, and in some parts of your county, into mush where they were actually impassable," he said at the gathering in Hastings, a city that straddles Dakota and Washington counties where the St. Croix, Vermillion and Mississippi rivers meet.

"Roads had to be closed, and that causes concerns for the ability of the government to provide emergency services, law enforcement, fire, emergency medical, etc.," he said.

Kelly said his agency plans to open an emergency operations center this spring to help coordinate the local, state and federal responses to the flooding that's expected to happen across the state over the next few weeks.

— Tim Nelson | Hastings, Minn.

Private wells: Officials preach protection

The Lake Byllesby Dam in Cannon Falls, Minn., after rainfall and snowmelt
The Lake Byllesby Dam in Cannon Falls, Minn., after rainfall and snowmelt on Friday.
Courtesy of Dakota County Sheriff's Office

Health officials are urging the more than a million Minnesotans who get their drinking water from private wells to safeguard their wells from potential floodwaters.

The state health department lists several steps well owners should take if they think flood water could be headed their way:

• Reserve some well water before shutting your well down.

• Disconnect your well's power supply.

• If there's time, install a cover on your well.

• If you don't have time to install a sealed cover, clean off the top of the well and cover it with secured plastic sheeting.

• If your area floods, be prepared to have your well disinfected and tested before you put it back in service.

The health department said people with wells in flood-prone areas can take additional protective measures, including temporarily capping well vents and extending well casings above the expected flood water line.

"If you have time to shut the power off to that well through a circuit breaking or switch, that can help," said Chris Elvrum, who oversees the department's well management program.

"[So does] actually covering the well with some plastic and taping it up with some electrical [tape]. That will help. You'll still probably have to disinfect and test, but keeping debris out of that well can really help the cleanup."

The health department is also warning well owners to assume contamination if flood water comes in contact with well water.

— Mark Zdechlik | St. Paul

To the east: From ice jams to flooding prep

The city of Hastings spent the weekend dealing with ice jams backing up the Vermillion River — and was already seeing some of this spring's initial floodwaters recede by the time dozens of local, state and federal officials met there Monday to talk about preparations for the potentially historic flooding expected to hit the area at the end of March.

Public works director Nick Egger said the major Mississippi River flooding is still weeks away, but the breaking of the ice jam this weekend helped alleviate some more immediate worries.

"The good news front is that we've had a large amount of the snow already melt down," he said. "And so to have a staged melt off like this is helpful."

The city sits near the confluence of the Vermilion, St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, and will supply sandbags and some heavy equipment assistance to about a dozen homes that face the river and are likeliest to be inundated when the waters rise, he said.

Egger says the city expects this year's flooding to be similar to 1997 and 2001, and expects the river to crest the first week of April.

At the same meeting Monday, U.S. Rep. Angie Craig pledged federal help to local and state officials. The first-term Democrat told the Hastings mayor and county officials that she even expects to be on the ground along the Mississippi, pitching in herself.

"My team will be doing some sandbagging later this week in South St. Paul," she said. "And we're going to be out in our communities that are being affected by the flooding directly. Obviously, we'll be working with the state if there are any federal emergency management resources that get triggered later on."

Officials in Hastings said they expect the high water to rank among the five most serious floods on record in the city, but expect the river's crest to fall nearly 5 feet short of the 1965 record. They said they were expecting the water to be nearly 4 feet higher than last spring's peak.

Up the St. Croix River, the city of Stillwater is preparing for what officials fear could be one of the top 10 floods on record in the city this spring.

Crews have been clearing snow from downtown parking lots, where parking is banned, starting this week. Mayor Ted Kozlowski said potential flooding will also halt a pair of ongoing construction projects in the area.

"We've got the historic lift bridge rehabilitation project going on and all the heavy equipment for that that needs to get out," Kozlowski said. "We've got the Water Street Inn hotel project that's right next to the bridge with a whole bunch of heavy equipment that needs to get out."

The city has plans to start staging sandbags, heavy equipment and concrete barriers for flood prevention beginning this week. Plans are also in the works to build a long dike to protect downtown, which lies just along the river.

One forecast by the National Weather Service predicts a nearly 50 percent chance for this spring's flooding to bring one of the top three river crests ever recorded in the city.

— Tim Nelson | Hastings, Minn.

To the west: A state of emergency

Carrying sandbags
Christian Carlson, 30, carries sandbags to the backyard of his mother's house in central Fargo, N.D., on April 26, 2013. The city plans to launch this year's sandbag effort next week.
Ann Arbor Miller for MPR | File 2013

The mayor of North Dakota's largest city declared an emergency Monday and asked residents to help fill 1 million sandbags in preparation of major Red River flooding.

"This is a very serious flood forecast, and we'll meet it with a serious response," Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said during a news conference.

The latest National Weather Service outlook says "significant" snowmelt flooding is likely this spring in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota after last week's massive late-winter storm brought heavy rain and snow to the Upper Midwest. The chance the river will reach major flood stage in Fargo has increased from 50 percent to 90 percent.

Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, experienced a record flood 10 years ago. The two cities with a combined population of about 165,000 residents have implemented several measures since then such as home buyouts and levees, but Mahoney said there still are areas that could be vulnerable to major flooding.

"We cannot be complacent," he said.

If the river crested 4 feet above flood stage, about 2,500 properties could be impacted, according to Nathan Boerboom, a city engineer. The weather service outlook shows a 25 percent chance of that happening. There's about a 10 percent chance of the river reaching the same level it did in 2009, but Mahoney said the city will still prepare for that level.

The 2009 flood destroyed about 100 structures and caused millions of dollars in damage. Fargo, which sits lower than Moorhead, was saved only by a massive sandbagging effort by 100,000 volunteers involving more than 7 million bags.

The river is expected to crest in Fargo in mid-April. Sandbag-filling operations begin March 26 and will last about 10 days, according to Mahoney. School students will help, as they did in 2009, and Mahoney asked other residents to again volunteer, calling on "the spirit of Fargo."

The city also is working on flood plans to handle such things as emergency sheltering, feeding of displaced people, help for vulnerable populations and traffic control.

"Quick response teams will be ready," Mahoney said, adding that about 90 percent of the city's staff has experience from the 2009 flood.

The emergency declaration will help pave the way for federal aid to reimburse the city for flood-fighting expenses.

— The Associated Press | Fargo, N.D.

Correction (March 19, 2019): In an earlier version of this story, a photo caption misspelled Jason Reber's name on second reference.