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Published October 12, 2009, 12:00 AM

Kathryn, Barnes County officials worry about future of Clausen dam after devastating flood

KATHRYN, N.D. - Three miles west of this town of 55 people, the locals have what they call their “gem on the prairie,” and they’re struggling against financial obstacles to save it.

By: Kristen Daum, INFORUM

KATHRYN, N.D. - Three miles west of this town of 55 people, the locals have what they call their “gem on the prairie,” and they’re struggling against financial obstacles to save it.

At the Clausen Springs Recreation Area, about 17 miles south of Valley City, Spring Creek flows into the Clausen Springs reservoir – a picturesque lake about the size of 50 football fields, where visitors fish and camp during summer.

The creek flows from the Clausen Springs through the town of Kathryn, and eventually pours into the Sheyenne River.

On the east end of the reservoir sits the Clausen Springs Dam, a 50-foot-high, 700-foot-long earthen barrier that holds back the water.

Below the dam, scars are etched into the earth as a lasting reminder of the devastation here nearly six months ago.

In April, the Clausen Springs Dam was bombarded by flooding. Heavy snowmelt from more than 100 square miles of farmland draining into Spring Creek caused the dam to fail.

The rushing floodwaters poured over the dam into its earthen emergency spillway at a pressure so great it eroded the spillway several feet up its walls, causing severe damage.

Downstream, Kathryn residents evacuated for several days and feared they’d lose their homes to the flood. And then the North Dakota National Guard dropped 1,000-pound sandbags from a helicopter on the spillway to shore it up.

Today, a few dozen of those giant sandbags still are left abandoned in the grass of the now empty and crippled spillway.

State officials decided last week to lower the water level in the lake behind Clausen Springs Dam, as a precaution for possible spring floods.

Nothing else has been done since April to repair the damaged spillway, and Kathryn and Barnes County officials remain worried for the future of their backyard treasure, as they scramble to find money to fix the damage.

What’s been done

Since April, officials from Kathryn, Barnes County and the state have considered options to repair the damaged spillway – but whatever they choose, it will cost the local governments money they don’t have.

West Fargo-based Moore Engineering performed a risk analysis this summer to gauge what construction would be needed to repair the spillway.

The results indicated there was a cheaper repair option, but it wouldn’t have met modern state guidelines for a class-five dam like Clausen Springs. But there is a primary option, which is more expensive, that would, said Chad Engels of Moore Engineering.

The North Dakota State Water Commission decided recently that no exception would be granted, and any repairs would have to meet dam requirements, which means the dam repair will cost at least $3 million.

“It’s under-designed,” Assistant State Engineer Todd Sando said. “If we’re going to put state dollars in to it, it needs to meet our criteria.”

After months of uncertainty when no government entity seemed willing to foot the bill, the county and state now are working together to tackle the cost.

Officials at both the State Water Commission and the state Game and Fish Department, which owns the land, have each agreed to pay up to $1 million for the dam repairs.

Barnes County would have to pay the remaining $1 million – and officials there say they have no idea where that money would come from.

“It’s just a pretty hopeless, helpless feeling to tell you the truth,” said Barnes County Commissioner Harlan Opdahl, who lives in nearby Litchville, N.D. “When it comes to a million dollars, we don’t have it.”

Meanwhile, the county’s Water Resource Board is searching for ways to come up with the million, including seeking help from the state’s congressional delegation in Washington, D.C.

County officials hope to find the money by February so they can construct a concrete spillway at Clausen Springs next summer, board secretary Jamie Smith said.

“I have faith in this,” she said.

The alternative

In case the dollars don’t come through, officials are considering another option: Draining the lake and removing the dam.

“It’s an unsafe dam; there’ll be a need to remove it,” Sando said. “It cannot stay in the state that it’s in right now.”

Removing the dam would cost about $100,000, according to Moore Engineering.

But many in Kathryn and Barnes County are adamant about keeping it.

“We do not want that dam taken out,” Kathryn City Council member Paul Fisher said.

Residents are worried about flooding to the town if Clausen Springs Dam was removed, Fisher said.

Barnes County Park Board Chairman Dale Maasjo said it also could hurt the tourism at Clausen Springs Recreation Area if the dam and lake were removed.

“It’d be sad to lose it,” Maasjo said. “We’ve put a lot of time … to bring this park back to life.”

Engineers and state officials said Kathryn residents shouldn’t worry about their safety if the dam was removed, because the dam wasn’t built to protect against flooding. It was constructed in 1967 to accommodate recreation activities in the park.

However, if Clausen Springs Dam failed because of flooding, it could be dangerous for Kathryn, Engels said.

What’s next

As the county’s quest for funding continues, state water officials are drawing down the lake water by about 7 feet to provide some leeway for Kathryn once spring comes.

“It gives us more flood cushion, so the water would have to come up 7 feet more before we started using the existing emergency spillway.” Sando said.

Although that will help, Sando said Kathryn might still be at risk because the spillway remains damaged.

“The dam’s very compromised, so it’s definitely a concern,” he said.

Meanwhile, some Kathryn residents are frustrated about the lack of progress in the past six months, and they’re on edge about the spring.

“Things are happening too slow, and next thing you know, it’s going to be too late,” Kathryn resident Jeff Hoober said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541