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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

High water levels plaguing Rainy River basin

David Colburn
Posted 5/15/22

REGIONAL- The water continues to rise along the Rainy River basin, fueled by recent rains and snowmelt, and that could pose problems for lake residents in the border country. Levels are already …

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High water levels plaguing Rainy River basin

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REGIONAL- The water continues to rise along the Rainy River basin, fueled by recent rains and snowmelt, and that could pose problems for lake residents in the border country. Levels are already approaching those that caused extensive flooding and shoreline damage in 2014 and water is expected to continue to rise at least into next week.
According to Scott Jutila, the U.S. engineering adviser to the Water Levels Committee for the International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board, the storm system that moved through the area April 24-25 was the primary impetus of the rising water.
“We ended up with three-and-a-half inches of rain or better over a lot of the basin, and that occurred on top of the snowpack,” Jutila said. “Three-and-a-half inches of water falling on four inches or better of water equivalent in that snow made it all run off at once. So, over that weekend we ended up as if it was like an eight-inch rainstorm.”
All of the logs were pulled from the sluices of the Namakan Lake dams at Kettle Falls and Squirrel Falls on April 26, but the inflows to the system were so great that both Rainy and Namakan Lakes shot past the tops of their predetermined rule curves on April 27. All the canal gates and four of the dam gates were opened at the Rainy Lake dam, which at the time was maximizing the outflow from the lake, according to a Water Level Committee update issued that day. As water levels continued to rise, more gates were opened, with all 15 fully open by May 5.
“An important thing to remember about Rainy Lake is that it’s a natural lake and it has a natural opening near Ranier,” Jutila said. “There are rapids and a reach of river between the lake and the dam at International Falls. “There’s only so much effect you can have at the lake because there’s only so much water that’s going to come out (through the natural opening). As the lake comes up higher, then it goes through that natural opening and more will go through the dam. The dam is managed so that we don’t open it up too much. So as the lake was coming up gates were (progressively) opened so that we could maximize the amount of water coming out of the lake and get to the point where eventually you could open up all the gates.”
But maximum drainage from Rainy Lake still wouldn’t be sufficient to match the prolonged excessive inflow to the basin, something the Water Level Committee noted in a May 3 update.
“The lakes will stop rising only when the rate of inflow matches the outflow. When that happens will depend on the precipitation. High lake levels are likely to develop if the coming weeks see wet weather,” the update said.
Evidence of that continued rise was seen in images of submerged boat docks at Crane Lake that began appearing on social media last weekend as the water elevation there hit 1,119.81 feet on Sunday morning. By 11 p.m. Tuesday, the elevation had increased to 1,120.2, 0.8 feet shy of the peak of the June 2014 event.
The impact of additional rain is also magnified because the moisture has nowhere to go other than the basin’s tributaries and lakes, Jutila said.
“Half an inch doesn’t seem like a lot of rain, at least it doesn’t seem like much to me,” he said. “Under normal conditions, that absorbs into the ground and there’s not a lot of runoff. But the base is so saturated, and the wetlands are full, ditches are full, everything is full, so when it does rain you get more runoff than you expect, even with half an inch.”
Declining river flow was projected to level off or temporarily increase at the end of the week based on weather predictions, but Jutila pointed to projections for the Basswood River near Winton as evidence that more water will be making its way to the lakes in the coming week. Continually rising since May 1, the Basswood flow isn’t expected to peak until May 17.
Jutila also acknowledged that extended winter conditions have compounded the problems lakeshore property owners have experienced.
“These are worse conditions than we see in a lot of years even with the same water levels because we’ve had these high record levels with ice still on the lakes,” he said. “With ice shifting around, people with permanent docks are getting damage that they wouldn’t normally get.”
Jutila said that people who want to monitor conditions can do so through a special Rainy River basin webpage set up by the Duluth National Weather Service office. Links are provided to access current lake and river level information, latest news releases, forecasts, and official local information. The page is available at www.weather.gov/dlh/RainyRiverBasin#.

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