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Perham flood with 'no end in sight': Slowly rising lakes have no access to natural drains

Justin Larson of Dent, Minn., helps place sandbags along his in-laws' cabin along Little McDonald lake on Thursday afternoon. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

PERHAM, Minn. - When a landlocked lake with no outlet starts flooding your property, what then?

You do what Dolores and Don Bernauer were up to Thursday: stack a wall of sandbags that may never come down.

"It's a forever fight," said Dolores Bernauer. "People don't understand what it's like."

The Bernauers, who have a lot on the south shore of Little McDonald Lake, are in the same pickle as many owners of lakeside homes in Otter Tail County: They're waging war on a slowly rising flood with no end in sight.

"It never goes down," Don Bernauer said of the lake, which homeowners in the area say lacks natural drainage because of roads blocking drain patterns.

Some of the worst lake flooding in the county was along the Little McDonald five miles west of Perham, where sandbags were piled in most driveways and the sounds of running pumps - many of them required for the first time this spring - could be heard across the lake's still-icy water.

"There's not going to be an instant cure for this," said Jeff Williams, a homeowner on the southwest edge of Little McDonald.

Williams said the water along his stretch of shore is up nearly 3 feet from last fall, high enough that his boathouse has taken on so much water it's been knocked off its foundation.

Stiff winds on Wednesday night blew surface ice from the lake onto land behind Williams' house, and the water is so high that chunks of ice were stacked nearly to the his boathouse's gutters, a 6-foot pile that had only melted down to about 4 feet by midday.

The county is providing sandbags to residents who ask for them, and they've been taking them as fast as volunteer crews can make them, said Dallas Grewe, a maintenance supervisor in the Highway Department who was running a sandbag-filling effort in Pelican Rapids on Thursday.

There were 6,500 sandbags filled Wednesday in Perham, and Grewe said a similar number was the goal in Pelican Rapids on Thursday. Volunteers plan to continue the bag-filling today in Pelican Rapids and into next week as needed, he said.

To volunteer or request sandbags, call the Highway Department at (218) 998-8470.

Though the lakes have risen over the last several years, the record-setting levels on numerous Otter Tail lakes caught many folks by surprise, Grewe said. It's been especially tough on retirees, who he estimated made up half of the resident who sought sandbags.

"They never thought they'd have this problem," Grewe said. "We have high water where we haven't had it before."

Williams said he suspects it will take a couple of dry years before any major drop will be seen on Little McDonald Lake. But the same weather pattern that has made for three consecutive major floods in Fargo has also prevented lake country from drying, he said.

"They say we're in a wet cycle," Williams said.

So instead of the 40 feet of sandy beach the Bernauers enjoyed when they bought their land in 1983, they expect the sandbag dike they were building Thursday to protect indefinitely what little beach is left.

The wall of white bags does little for the view. But neither did the 21 truckloads of riprap rocks they put on the shoreline several years ago, which is now underwater.

"It's a nightmare, but what do you do?" Dolores Bernauer said. "They've got to get this water out of here."

Volunteers needed for Otter Tail sandbagging

Volunteers will be filling sandbags again today in Pelican Rapids, Minn., to distribute to homes facing lake flooding, said Dallas Grewe, Otter Tail County Highway Department maintenance supervisor.

The county sandbagging operation will be at the Highway Department garage at 200 NE 5th Ave.

To volunteer or request sandbags, call (218) 998-8470.

Grewe said another volunteer sandbagging effort will likely be run Tuesday in Perham, Minn.