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A new plan, and new hope, for flood relief west of Perham: Little McDonald, Kerbs, Paul and Devils lakes are working together on a permanent solution to a long-standing problem

A Paul Lake homeowner holds part of a former lawn sprinkler system, now underwater, and points to where the beach used to be prior to the onset of rising waters, in this Perham Focus photo from 2014. Perham Focus file photo1 / 2
A cabin on Devils Lake is surrounded by water and waits to be condemned as mold grows up its walls after a flood in 2012. Perham Focus file photo2 / 2

After more than a decade of repeatedly dashed hopes and millions of dollars in damages, frustrated property owners on high-water lakes west of Perham are making some headway on a new plan for flood relief.

Home and resort owners along Little McDonald, Kerbs, Paul and Devils lakes have long sought a viable solution to their flooding problems, and now they're working together to put those problems behind them for good.

The two Lake Improvement Districts, or LIDs, that represent the lakes have outlined a plan for a new pumping and outlet filter system that would comprehensively and permanently alleviate their high water levels. A joint motion was signed on Dec. 21, with both LIDs agreeing to share cost and responsibility for the project.

County Engineer and Public Works Division Director Rick West said there would be a public information meeting about the project in May. Representatives from the two LIDs did not return calls or emails from the Focus, or deferred to West for comment.

Otter Tail County is involved in the project's oversight, with detailed engineering work being done by Houston Engineering and Moore Engineering. While many details have yet to be finalized, West said the project is moving forward.

"I think they're making some good progress," he said. "It's a project that's been underway for awhile now, and it's at a point now where things are coming along."

The outlet route will connect Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes to Devils Lake, creating a "common leg," as the joint motion describes it. From that leg, excess water will be pumped eastward to the Otter Tail River via an underground pipe.

West said further details of the route, as well as a construction timeline and preliminary cost estimate for the project, should be ready within the next couple of months.

Finding a workable solution has been a long and winding road for affected property owners.

Environmental obstacles, red tape and other hurdles have kept them anxiously waiting for about 15 years.

In that time, multiple ideas have been explored, and subsequently nixed. Various drainage routes have been proposed, researched and even approved by some of the required agencies before, for one unexpected reason or another, falling through.

At one point, it was discovered that a proposed route ran through an old Native American campground that couldn't be disturbed; at other points, the spread of zebra mussels and other water quality concerns put plans on indefinite pause.

Meanwhile, the damages continued to pile up. In 2014, a survey completed by Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes residents estimated their total damages at that time at $6.3 million. A couple of years before that, the Devils Lake LID reported that high water had impacted at least 50 homes and cabins, several of which had to be condemned because of mold.

A major step toward relief came in 2015, when the state of Minnesota pledged $10 million to flood protection around the lakes, drastically reducing the amount that affected property owners would have to pay.

According to the new agreement between the LIDs, if the cost of this new route exceeds $10 million, the Little McDonald, Kerbs and Paul lakes LID will cover the additional cost, up to $1.4 million. After that point the LID will have the option to try and downsize the project. If preliminary project estimates come in above $12 million, both LIDs will work together to try and reduce that number.

West said he has not gotten any phone calls, letters or other correspondence from anyone in opposition to the project, but the May meeting will be the first public meeting about it, and that will offer people a chance to ask questions and share concerns.

Once the LIDs' plans are finalized, the project will need to go through the proper channels and permitting process. West said it would be premature to try and guess how soon construction could start.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Perham Focus more than five years ago, and has since worn many hats as writer, editor and page designer. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their one-year-old son, Simon, and their yellow lab, Louisa. 

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