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Erv and Eileen Tolkinen are adding riprap and sand to their property to preserve boat and dock access at their home as the water level rises Tuesday, July 1, 2014, on Paul Lake. Dave Wallis / The Forum

'It's really depressing': Paul Lake residents near Perham battle nonstop flooding

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'It's really depressing': Paul Lake residents near Perham battle nonstop flooding
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

PERHAM, Minn. – Whenever Jenny Caughey sees a freight train rumble by, she daydreams of using the tank cars to carry water away from the flooded lake that has eaten away at her property for the past two decades. 


“I know it would be kind of like emptying a bathtub one thimble at a time,” says Caughey, 60, as she snaps back to reality.

Her family has lived on the shores of Paul Lake just west of here since 1959. The landlocked lake has no outlet, so it has risen some 10 feet over the past 20 years, by one resident’s estimate.

Caughey is just one example of those suffering through a seemingly never-ending wet cycle and the flooding of lakes country.

June was the wettest month on record for all of Minnesota, with portions of the northwestern part of the state getting twice the average rainfall, according to a state climatologist.

Water levels are up across Becker and Otter Tail counties, although nothing is technically at flood stage, officials said.

“There are some properties on lakes who are seeing some minor flooding in their basements, certainly seeing the shoreline kind of creep up a little bit,” said Patrick Waletzko, emergency management director for Otter Tail County.

Rick Hoium, maintenance supervisor for Otter Tail County, said he would consider the flooding countywide to be “minimal,” especially considering how badly inundated other Minnesota counties have been this summer.

Paul Lake and nearby Little McDonald Lake are outliers, though, experiencing worse flooding than most because they lack outlets, officials said.

In Becker County, Sheriff Kelly Shannon said there’s plenty of high water but no reports of flooded roads or structures. Strong winds and high water led Becker officials to issue a no wake advisory Monday.

Sandbags are available, but Shannon said he’s had no requests for them. Waletzko said Otter Tail County has received maybe a dozen requests for sandbags.

The highway system in Otter Tail County is in good shape, except for county Highways 15 and 34, said Rick West, the county’s public works director and engineer.

Highway 34 takes you from Perham into Paul Lake and to Caughey’s home. On Tuesday, a few yards of one lane on Highway 34 had sunk beneath an encroaching Ceynowa Lake.

“That is a real disaster waiting to happen,” Caughey said. “Someone is going to get killed on that road.”

The road is on schedule to be improved in the next five years, West said, but he said the county might do some temporary work to raise it later this year.

Wettest month recorded

Paul Lake has been flooding for the past 20 years, rising some 10 feet in that time, said Erv Tolkinen, a resident who’s been measuring the lake since he moved to a home on its south side in 1992.

Across Minnesota, June has been the wettest month on record, which dates back to around 1895, said Greg Spoden, a climatologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“This year, the wetness has impacted areas all the way from the Iowa border to the Canadian border,” Spoden said.

Alexandra got 6 inches in June, which is 2 inches above the monthly normal. Bemidji got 8.3 inches, 4 inches above normal. Fergus Falls got 9.1 inches, which is 5 inches above normal.

Much of Otter Tail County has received 8 to 12 inches more rain so far this year than in a normal year. Much of Becker has received 6 to 8 inches more than normal, according to the National Weather Service.

“Every morning, you get up and it’s rained another half an inch,” Caughey said. “You might get through breakfast without it raining, but by lunchtime it’s raining again, and it’s really depressing.”

It’s hard to say if July will bring dryer weather to the area, Spoden said. 

The National Weather Service’s climate prediction center’s one-month outlook offers no help. It says there is an equal chance for average, above average or below average precipitation in July.

Local officials are hoping for a dry spell, but residents who have lived next to the flooding waters are more skeptical.

“That’s all speculation,” Tolkinen said.

Solutions hard to find

All around Paul Lake, residents are talking about an upcoming Lake Improvement District meeting, which they expect to be contentious but hope will lead to a solution to the constant flooding. The district includes Paul, Little McDonald, Rusch, and Kerbs lakes.

Tolkinen said one option is to pipe the water elsewhere, like into the Otter Tail River, but that in turn would affect the Red River. The Otter Tail and Bois de Sioux rivers meet in Wahpeton to form the headwaters of the Red.  

While residents look for permanent solutions, temporary ones are also proving hard to find.

Nearly half of Tolkinen’s backyard is completely flooded, with several inches of water sitting where he used to have a basketball court and a picnic area.

Last summer, he and his wife laid 800 sandbags on the edge of the property in hopes of keeping the water back. This year, most of those bags are underwater.

“We thought it’d be enough till the water dropped,” he said. “Well, it just kept coming up.”

So while they wait for an answer, Tolkinen, like many other lake home owners here, have been throwing mountains of sand on the flooded areas.

Caughey has done the same, creating a makeshift beach that is just a few feet long in front of her home. It’s a frustrating reality for Caughey, who fondly remembers dashing across 60 feet of hot, sandy beach when she was kid.

Her family used to rent out seven nearby cabins. Only three of them are left, and one of those was destroyed by this year’s flooding.

“You just keep losing, losing, losing,” she said.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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