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Local leaders and government officials in Roseau gather in the city park Monday for a ceremony to kick off their permanent flood protection project. Herald photo by Eric Hylden.

In Roseau, a day to 'move dirt'

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region Park Rapids, 56470
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

Almost every day in the seven years and 16 days since Roseau flooded, Mayor Jeff Pelowski has been pelted with one question: When will we start to move dirt?

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"Today, we're going to do it," he said triumphantly Monday. "Today, we're going to move dirt."

The black dirt for flood protection was moved by 19 shovel-wielders, not heavy equipment. It was ceremonial dirt dumped on grass. And the scooping was done in Roseau City Park about 125 yards from where the real digging will begin for the diversion ditch that will route high water around the city.

All of those qualifiers aside, the groundbreaking for the long-awaited $30 million flood protection project was -- pardon the expression -- a watershed moment.

"It's the most important undertaking in the history of the city," Pelowski said, with many in the crowd of 100 nodding heads at the hyperbole.

Although many flood-prevention measures have been taken since the June 2002 flood that overwhelmed most of the city, the ceremony marked the start of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' main project. Work on new bridges will start July 16 and the design contract for the diversion is expected to be awarded this week.

The 4½-mile diversion, which will be as much as 350 feet wide in places, will be dug the following two years, with completion expected in fall 2011. It can't come too soon for residents, said Jack Swanson, local radio station owner and the chairman of the Roseau County Board.

"When this is completed, all but about four properties will be taken out of the flood zone," Swanson said. "Flood insurance costs as much as $1,000 a year for some properties. If you consider 1,200 properties paying flood insurance, that's a great deal of money saved."

But it's about more than the pocketbook and that a flood-proofed city is more likely to attract growth and investment, Swanson said. "There will be a sense that we're safe," he said. "We're tired of sandbagging and tired of mobilizing."

Weary residents

The 2002 flood was the city's biggest on record, but two more of the top five all-time floods have happened since and this spring also presented a threat. So, city residents are weary about the Roseau River that flows to the north.

Roseau residents will pay $821,000 of the $30 million project, as the same formula was used as the one benefiting East Grand Forks and other flood-hit towns in 1997. Roseau's wait will be about the same as EGF and Warren, which has a similar diversion that has proven effective. The project is basically the same as the one drawn up in 2005, although the price has risen $9 million since then.

The diversion, which will run east of town, will require purchases from 35 landowners. No residences will be needed.

It will protect to a 100-year flood and "provide a solid foundation" if bigger flood battles need to be waged, Army Corps Col. Jon Christensen said.

The groundbreaking included elected officials or their emissaries from the City Council to the U.S. Senate. But the ceremony will be nothing compared with the completion observance, Pelowski said.

"In two-plus years, we're having a very, very, very big party," he said.

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