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River jam brings icy flood to Otter Tail River residents

The typically sleepy Otter Tail River that runs behind Doug Seiler's house gave him an early Christmas present of the coal-in-the-stocking variety this week.

The already high water on the Otter Tail surged 1½ feet between Tuesday and Wednesday, forcing Seiler and his wife to pump water and sandbag just to keep their basement floor dry.

Before their pumps were up and running, icy water flowed in through their walk-in basement door.

"It's a nightmare in December," said Seiler, who lives in a rural subdivision a couple miles northeast of Fergus Falls. "Thank God for friends."

Authorities said Thursday that the river's rise was caused by an ice jam about a mile downstream, a frozen blockade that created a 3-foot difference in water levels on either side of the jam, said Otter Tail County Sheriff Brian Schlueter.

The jamming point was found Wednesday but is difficult to access, with a high bluff on one side and nearly frozen swamp on the other, he said.

Mid-morning on Thursday, a group, including the state Department of Natural Resources and sheriff's deputies, waded in to punch a hole in the jam with a log, Schlueter said.

Officials will monitor the situation, but they hope the water flowing through the open channel will finish off the job and knock the jam free within a day, he said.

"It's not an exact science," the sheriff said.

Maurice Skogen, Seiler's next-door neighbor, said the Otter Tail's been high since August, but the surge this week has now covered two-thirds of his property. His yard looks like an outdoor skating rink.

Skogen said he's owned the land he lives on since 1982 and it's never flooded in the winter before. Even in season, flooding is tame along that stretch of the Otter Tail, he said.

Schlueter said he's seen similar flooding before in the winter as the rivers are freezing up, but this is the first time he recalls winter flooding affecting homes.

High levels in the local waterways make jams even more likely, he said. That's because the higher water is more likely to pull debris on the banks into the river bed, and jams are formed when small chunks of ice in nearly frozen water attach to objects.

Schlueter said there have also been ice blockages reported on other area rivers, such as the Pelican River. It's not a problem that's going away, he said.

"There's a potential for this all winter," he said.

Skogen said he's not sure why the river levels are so high to begin with. "We'll probably never know the real answer," he said.

He's hoping floodwaters start receding soon, as he is pumping his crawl space 24 hours a day to get rid of the seepage. There was no drop yet by Thursday afternoon.

"There's a lot of water. I'm sure it will take awhile," Skogen said.

It's even more urgent for Seiler, who was shopping for unfrozen clay Thursday to dike his basement door.

The pumps have to run to keep his house dry, and the pumps have to be watched because they often fail.

Tending to pumps means time off work, Seiler said.

"I can't afford it," he said.