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Root River Blues Revisited: In the Wake of the Flood

Sun, Jun 25th, 2000
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Monday, June 26, 2000

6:00 a.m. Thursday June 1, 2000: The South Branch of the Root River, small, clear and perhaps somewhat low for this time of year, placidly meanders and winds its way through Lanesboro towards a merger with the mighty Mississippi. Water flows over the citys historic dam at the leisurely rate of about 600 cubic feet per second.

By 9:00 a.m., however, a mere three hours later, conditions on the South Branch have changed dramatically. Now turbid and brown with eroded soils from the west, and fully engorged with the branches, trees and debris of uncountable tributary streams, the Root now spills well over its banks.

A soupy, almost syrupy morass of floodwater has quietly but steadily spread itself over Riverview Campground, the RV campsite just upstream from the dam that borders the football field of Lanesboro High School. The evacuation of the campgrounds temporary and unpleasantly surprised residents quickly turns into a sodden muddy mess. Coolers, lawn chairs and an assortment of other sundry camping items drift along with the river.

By 10:00 a.m. water roars over the Lanesboro Dam at perhaps 1700 cubic feet per second, a rate nearly three times that of only four hours before. Below the dam, in the controversial and certainly questionable location of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fishing pier project, a frothy, rapidly moving mass of water, at least 10 to 15 feet in depth at its deepest, covers and scours the landscape. Stinking of sewage, this moving lake is now only eight feet away from overflowing the dike, which barricades Parkway Avenue from the rivers seasonal flood-swollen onslaughts.

The small wooden tool shed of Lanesboros Community Garden, quivers, then slowly lifts and drifts downstream. A small clump of trees snares the antique wood-sided shack, saving it until some future flood again tries washing the structure away.

Around 11:30 a.m. first one, then the other of Kim-Os portable plastic toilets flows away from Riverview Campground. These float beautifully as they make their way to and over the dam, then disappear in the furiously churning waters below. Minutes later, broken and
battered pieces of port-a-potty including chemical holding tanks complete with seats reappear and bob away with the rivers flow to destinations unknown.

Just before noon a tree 30 feet long, driftwood from some flood of the past, slowly rises from its former riverbank-resting place below the Lanesboro Dam. Swirled around by the current, it drifts along until colliding centermost with a power-line pole. This pole, just recently moved in accordance with the DNRs fishing pier plans, shakes, teeters and then leans over precariously downstream. The electrical wires tethering the pole to its neighbors alone prevents a total collapse and power is turned off to avoid potential disaster.

Further downstream, the citys baseball diamond is covered with perhaps a foot of water. The triangle of land bordering the ball field to the east, the long considered but now wisely rejected building site of the proposed Lanesboro Arts Center, is likewise completely submerged. On the Flats at the north end of town, water inundates homeowners backyards within feet of building foundations.

Fortunately the Root Rivers waters, at least this time around, will rise no higher. As the floodwaters recede over the next day or two, however, damages wrought by the Roots fast occurring but short lasting fury become starkly and frustratingly apparent. A large section of asphalt on MN State Highway 250 near the second Root River Bridge has been literally scrubbed from the landscape. Sizable portions of the Root River Bike Trail, their substrate foundation eroded away by swiftly flowing water, collapsed or disappeared between Lanesboro and Whalan, not to mention the trails nearly complete washout at Houston.

Silt, sand and mud, in some cases several feet thick, blanketslow-lying fields throughout the region as well. Newly sprouted crops severely damaged or even completely destroyed under a smothering, all encompassing mantle of muck. Area financial losses are estimated to easily exceed several million dollars.

Despite this massive amount of local damage, those residing near the Root River were lucky this time. Contrary to some previously published statements, our most recent high water event was nowhere near a 100 Year Flood, at least not on the South Branch in Lanesboro. In reality, here in Lanesboro this particular flood was more like a 10 Year Event, a high water mark that can be reasonably expected to occur at an average frequency of at least once per decade. Flooding on the South Branch has, at the same time, certainly exceeded the water level experienced during this years flood within the last 100 years. Indeed as historic photos and eye-witness accounts so amply demonstrate, Lanesboros Great Flood of 1950 overflowed the dike to inundate Sylvan Park.

So, will our recent 10 Year Flood generate at least some reconsideration of the overall wisdom of building a fishing pier and parking area, a project which by the DNRs own admission has already sustained between $15,000 to $20,000 in damages this year alone, in the flood prone land below the Lanesboro Dam? Unfortunately, if the past reaction of the agencys Trails and Waterways Division to earlier opposition of the proposed fishing pier project is any indication, the answer is undoubtedly no.

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