When most people think of something being flooded, the image that pops into their head likely has something to do with water being somewhere that it’s not supposed to be. Mostly, at least around these parts where the ocean is miles and miles away, this would involve a river rising to the point that its water spills over its banks and rushes into areas to inflict damage.
For decades, “flood stage” for the Red Lake River in Crookston has been 15 feet. But a depth of 15 feet is far from alarming. That number was chosen because it was determined long ago that the river would flood at that level if no levees whatsoever were in place on the sides of its channel that snakes through the community.
But for decades, after the flood of 1950, dikes were in place that, give or take several inches to a foot, protected the community’s low-lying, vulnerable areas from a crest in the 26-foot range.
The limitations of that level of protection were readily apparent as the harsh winter of 1996-97 led to a record spring flood forecast for Crookston. Clay was placed on the old dikes along with thousands and thousands of sandbags filled and placed by volunteers. The river reached a record crest of 28.3 feet that spring – it was at the top of the sandbags for days – and major areas of town were minutes and even seconds away from being inundated by the river until frantic efforts to break up a massive ice jam finally succeeded at the critical moment.
That huge flood scare opened the eyes of the powers-that-be in St. Paul to just how overmatched Crookston’s old “temporary” levees were, and state dollars subsequently began to flow in Crookston’s direction. The result is a levee system and other flood control measures that protect the community from a Red Lake River crest of 30 feet, give or take a couple inches.
And yet, a river level of 15 feet is still referred to as “flood stage.” If you go to the National Weather Service’s homepage today, a flood warning continues for the Red Lake River in Crookston, even though the river this past weekend, after all this rain and snow, failed to reach a 20 foot depth. (It did flood unprotected Central Park.)
As we dealt with such a rainy September and the river rose and dropped and rose again, Crookston residents who are far less familiar with the community’s checkered past with its river were left wondering how concerned they should be by a river that was projected to exceed 15 feet, or “flood stage.” With the major storm systems that rolled through late last week and into the weekend, their concern was mixed with confusion, too, as a “flood warning” was issued. It’s not a “watch,” mind you, it’s a “warning,” which indicates something is happening, or it’s going to happen.
But Crookston is not in danger of flooding. The river’s certainly up, but we are protected.