Column: When rivers and floodwaters rise, so does curiosity

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 28, 2001

Rivers overflowing their banks.

Saturday, April 28, 2001

Rivers overflowing their banks. Cars washed away by raging water. Portions of street or highway closed for weeks because they’re blanketed by water.

Email newsletter signup

Is this sort of stuff supposed to happen so often?

It seems like flooding in Minnesota has been inescapable over the last few years. Everyone saw the destruction in Grand Forks a few years ago. Then, we have a couple nonexistent winters, and things are OK. Now, a regular winter, and we’re back to high water everywhere. Should that happen after a relatively normal winter? Is global warming to blame? Bad luck? Murphy’s Law? Random chance?

Even here in Albert Lea, Main Street’s woes seem like they’ve been worse this decade. I mean, it’s already been closed twice in the last year, by my count. It seems like a little water on Main is part of life in Albert Lea, but is it supposed to happen this often, to this extent?

It seems like the same trouble spots get hit every time: In Albert Lea, it’s always a problem near the Union Center on Main. Statewide, areas like Grand Forks and Breckenridge on the Red River are always sandbagging when water levels start rising. In the city where my parents live, the Twin Cities suburb of Chaska, it’s a recurring problem, too.

I’m no hydrologist, or climatologist, or meteorolist – I’m more of an &uot;-ist&uot; than an &uot;-ologist&uot; – but the flooding of the last decade must not have been anticipated by the people who settled the areas in question. It must not have happened as often in the past. Otherwise, why would they have settled there?

When Grand Forks flooded, I heard this from others in the state: &uot;Sure, you’re going to get floods – you live right by a river that tends to get a little temperamental in the springtime.&uot; That’s a real easy thing to say, but think about it: Why do they live there? It’s the same question you ask about people who live o n the San Andreas Fault or next to a volcano. The answer is because they don’t feel like there’s any danger, or the benefits of living there outweigh the potential for harm. Or maybe they were born there and it’s too much of a hassle to move.

My parents are in the middle of one of the most flooded zones in the state, the Highway 212-101-169 area between Chaska, Shakopee and Eden Prairie. When I would drive along highway 101 near the Minnesota River as a high schooler, I’d see the signs along the road showing the highest flood point. It was about ten feet off the road. I couldn’t imagine the water being that high. But it happens.

This brings back that old question: Why is a major traffic artery running through a floodplain in a fast-growing suburban area?

My dad is wondering that right now. His normal commute to work is about 15 minutes from Chaska to Shakopee. Now, his choices are to detour through Eden Prairie (45 minute trip) or through Belle Plaine (more than an hour). What a pain.

Things weren’t quite so bad in Albert Lea this spring, but it sure created some headaches, didn’t it? The traffic is already so bad on Bridge that the city council is trying to find a relief plan, and then Main Street closes for a couple weeks. It brought back bad memories of the bridge-out season last year.

You can talk about it at length, and I’m sure after these things have happened five or six times, you get pretty resigned to just dealing with it. But since I don’t have the benefit of complacency yet, I can’t help but wonder if anything can be done to fix the problem. They say it would be extremely expensive and difficult to raise East Main, and chances are it’s not high on the DOT’s priority list. They say a dike wouldn’t work because it would need to be too long. Some people facetiously suggest draining Albert Lea Lake, solving two problems at once. But is there really anything that can be done?

I wonder, because I think it hurts communities to have to deal with such things. Will Chaska and Shakopee reach their full potential if residents can move to Woodbury and not have to deal with a river? Will Grand Forks ever shake the image of a burning building standing in an ocean of floodwaters? And can Albert Lea really compete with nearby cities if one of its main roads (in an already erratic street system) is out of commission for weeks at a time?

I don’t know. But I’m hoping for a long and floodless summer.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at