Flood risks vanish: Breckenridge works on diversion channel
BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. -- The big flood hit Breckenridge seven years ago this April. When the Red River finally receded after cresting at just over 19 feet on April 16, 1997, the water left behind $50 million worth of damage. The episode, the worst ...
BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. -- The big flood hit Breckenridge seven years ago this April.
When the Red River finally receded after cresting at just over 19 feet on April 16, 1997, the water left behind $50 million worth of damage.
The episode, the worst in a series of floods that have threatened Breckenridge every few years starting in 1989, inundated 400 homes -- one fourth the total number in the city.
"It's still very easy to picture. There were a lot of sad faces," recalled Mark Lorenz, a 30-year resident of the city.
"It was quite devastating. There was so much uncertainty for a lot of people. Their homes were basically gone."
Though his own house was spared, Lorenz spent many hours helping the city's sandbagging effort.
The flood was accompanied by a deep freeze, he said, and he recalled having to steer his car around huge chunks of ice left in the streets.
If past patterns hold, Breckenridge might expect another crisis some time within the next few years, though accurate long-range flood prediction is nearly impossible, according to Mike Lukes, hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D.
Lukes said the Dakotas appear to be entering a dry period and droughts tend to move east. But that's more "a Farmer's Almanac kind of thing," Lukes added.
It is safe to say, he said, that the city will likely face another flood at some point. "Nature tends to surprise," he said.
The next time high water looms, however, residents might scoff instead of scramble.
The reason: a 3½-mile river diversion project under construction on the north side of the city.
At 100 feet wide at its top and 25 feet deep, the diversion channel will start near where the Otter Tail and Boise de Sioux rivers join to form the headwaters of the Red River.
When finished, the channel will be used during times of high water to steer excessive river flows away from Breckenridge and Wahpeton, N.D., and dump them back into the Red River about three miles north of the communities.
The $8 million project is currently on schedule to be completed some time in October, but that isn't guaranteed.
Breckenridge still is waiting for about $4 million in federal funds and the problem could soon stall work on the project, according to Leo Wanzek, owner and president of Wanzek Construction of Fargo, the primary contractor.
The company is plowing ahead with earth work in the hope the money will arrive soon.
In addition to being reimbursed costs, the contractor is entitled to about 3½ percent interest.
But Wanzek said there is a limit to how much he can sink into the job without getting paid.
He said work might continue for about another month and then it will be shut down.
If additional funding isn't secured by October, he said, the company can legally walk away from the project, leaving behind "a big mess."
Stan Thurlow, economic development director for Breckenridge, said he's grateful for Wanzek's continued work on the diversion.
"Not every contractor would have done that," he said, adding the chances the federal money won't be allocated are slim.
"In reality, it's pretty much an iron-clad contract," Thurlow said.
The importance of the project to Breckenridge and Wahpeton is tremendous, he said.
"It would potentially solve all future flooding problems," Thurlow said.
Once the diversion is in place, the city intends to firm up and extend its dike network, a plan that would require another $12 million to $15 million from the federal government.
City officials aren't sure when that money will start to flow.
"We don't know if it's going to be two, three or 10 years. The feds spoon feed these projects," Breckenridge City Clerk Blaine Hill said.
In Breckenridge, the Red River officially floods at a stage of 10 feet.
The diversion channel, which will start to fill when the river reaches a stage of 12 feet, is expected to reduce future flood crests by nearly two feet, Hill said.
"The 1997 crest was about 19.1 (feet)," Hill said. "If you take a foot and a half off that, we don't have any problems handling 17 to 18 feet of water."
After the 1997 flood, the city of Breckenridge bought out 131 damaged houses.
Since then, approximately 110 homes have been built, many of them on land made available by the city, which has acted as a developer since the early 1990s.
Most of the homes have been single-family dwellings.
"The big niche we're missing out on is upscale, multi-family rental units," Thurlow said. "It's tricky to get that built."
He said the city is working with a developer to create two dozen such units that would rent for between $650 and $800 a month.
The city is developing a new neighborhood that will have room for about 17 lots.
"We're going to put in the utilities this summer and hopefully start selling lots by the end of the summer," Hill said.
Other projects in town include a $1.3 million outdoor municipal swimming pool set to open in May.
Also, St. Francis Medical Center is constructing a new campus near the junction of highways 210 and 75 north.
The current hospital and nursing home, built in the early 1950s, are at 415 Oak St. in a residential neighborhood.
They will be replaced by a 25- to 30-bed acute care hospital and a 92- to 120-bed nursing home on a 30-acre campus.
Completion of the hospital and nursing home is expected by March 2005.
Thurlow said the hospital's decision to keep the $15 million project in Breckenridge was critical to the economic well-being of the city, which saw its population fall from 3,708 in 1993 to 3,539 by 2002.
"That's a real key to the city," Thurlow said of the hospital. "We're really happy they made the decision to stay in Breckenridge."
When St. Francis starts operating in its new location the city may play a role in finding a different use for the present hospital building, Thurlow said.
The old nursing home is to be torn down.
The city of Wahpeton built a large storm sewer system, holding pond and pump network last year to eliminate floodwater that may collect behind its dikes.
The city expects to complete that work this summer, but it will hold off on making improvements to its dike system until Breckenridge is ready to proceed with the same kind of work, said Jerry Lien, former city engineer and now a flood consultant for Wahpeton.
Lien said if one city moves quicker than the other on its dikes, it could heighten flooding problems for the neighboring city.
Wahpeton's dike improvements are expected to cost about $10.5 million. Most of the money is to come from the federal government and about $4.5 million has been secured, Lien said.
Although Breckenridge is no stranger to floods, many residents don't feel they'll be hit by another big one any time soon, said Lorenz, a real estate agent.
He said he recently sold a house to a retired couple who will soon move back to Breckenridge after having lived for a number of years in Texas.
Because of Breckenridge's flood-control efforts, Lorenz said the family felt confident enough to purchase a home next to the river that had water in the basement in 1997.
Another area resident, Tom Materi, said his faith in the city led him to purchase the Wilkin Restaurant two years ago.
"The diversion makes them (residents) feel better," Materi said.
"Some people say it's going to be 100 years before they use it. But who knows?"
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555