Flood risk looks mild for Isanti County

By Luke Reiter

Char Miller will be watching the snow melt with some anxiety this week.

It’s not that Miller has any particular affection for winter weather. She’s concerned about flood risks as one of the snowiest winters in Minnesota history clashes with temperatures in the 40s and 50s this week.

The rising Rum River at the County Road 5 bridge in Isanti. Photo by Luke Reiter

In the 11 years Char and her husband, Jeff, have lived in their walk-out rambler in Bradford Township they’ve never had flood damage from the pond in their backyard that acts as a runoff for the Rum River.

But Miller still vividly recalls how her neighbors had to park on the road and use a canoe to traverse the swollen waters to their home after similar conditions led to near record flooding in Isanti County in 2001.

“We’re just kind of praying that it’s going to not happen,” Miller said.

Miller’s anxiety is aggravated by the unknown: she said she’s placed numerous calls seeking flood forecasts for her area and looking for help with flood prevention, but so far she hasn’t been satisfied.

“I haven’t really been able to get too clear of answers,” Miller said.

‘Nothing’s really expected’

According to Mari DeLage Bostrom, director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management in Isanti County, the latest data suggests the Millers won’t have to invest in sandbags.

“Right now, nothing’s really expected for Isanti County,” Bostrom said.

Bostrom said she’s been listening to daily briefings on Isanti County’s flood risks and she’s worked closely with city officials to stay up to date on projections and plans. At the moment, Bostrom said, none of the cities is expecting noteworthy flooding.

John Taubert, highway superintendent for Isanti County, also said he has no unusual concerns about flooding this year. Taubert is charged with monitoring the roads each spring, posting warning signs and closing routes if necessary.

Taubert said last year he encountered a few issues with County Road 61, but he’s never had major flooding from the Rum River and he doesn’t expect this year to be different.

“It’s just an every-year thing––water goes up and water comes down,” Taubert said.

Char Miller said she appreciates the assurances from the county officials she’s spoken to, but she still wishes for a more prominent flood prevention program. Miller said prior to the flooding of 2001, a hydrologist visited her neighbors to warn them. Despite the unwelcome news, Miller said having someone  reach out was comforting.

“If there’s anything the county can do, it’d be nice to know,” Miller said.

According to Terri Yearwood, regional manager for the DNR Division of Ecological and Water Resources, the hydrologist position in Isanti County has been open since the previous hydrologist accepted an early retirement package last December that came as part of an effort to streamline the DNR in the face of massive state deficits.

Yearwood said the department remains committed to fulfilling it’s statutory obligations, but whether or not it can afford to hire a new hydrologist in Isanti County depends on the biennial state  budget that’s currently being debated in the legislature.

“I think we’re all anticipating reductions,” Yearwood said.

Flood factors

The National Climatic Data Center identifies six floods in Isanti County between 1950 and 2006. Of those, only the flooding in April 2001 was the result of melting snow.

Part of the difficulty in predicting floods, according to Anoka-Ramsey geology instructor Jeff Knapp, is the number of variables involved. Factors that affect flooding include temperature, rain, snow depth and moisture content, soil and impediments in the river, among other things.

Knapp said that people who live near the Rum River shouldn’t worry so much about the depth of snow around them, but rather they should pay attention to conditions upriver and the water levels of Lake Mille Lacs, the source of the river. Despite the heavy snow this year, Knapp said the weather granted some relief with the recent cold snap, which allowed for a more gradual melting.

Knapp noted that changes in land use in the area around the river affect the rate and quantity of water that enters the river, so development changes flood prospects from year to year.

“Any time you have people putting in new houses and filling in material into a flood plane you’re slowing water down, which means you back water up, which means places that never used to flood may now flood,” Knapp said.

Because the Rum River has not had problems with damaging floods historically, the only gauge measuring the river in its 145-mile trek from Mille Lacs to the Mississipi River is in St. Francis––an unfortunate placement for Isanti County residents since it’s downriver.

By contrast, the Red River has ten gauges posted at various points and numerous more gauges monitoring its tributaries. But Knapp pointed out that in addition to the vulnerable terrain of the Red River Valley, the flood prospects for the river are increased by the fact it flows north into colder conditions and therefore a greater risk of ice dams.

Resources for river watching

To track river levels and find out more information about flooding, visit www.weather.gov/oh/ahps.

If you have questions or concerns about flooding in your area, call Mari DeLage Bostrom at 763-689-8306 or visit the Isanti County Government Center to view the informational display.

To report water obstructing a road, contact the Isanti County Highway Department at 763-689-1870.