Side Lake residents share concerns about water levels

The Sturgeon River dam is located about 20 miles north of Hibbing on the outlet of the Sturgeon/Side Lake chain. The dam is on the west side of Highway 5. The Civilian Conservation Corps under the authority of the Emergency Conservation Works Act constructed the Sturgeon/Side Lake outlet dam in 1935/36. The dam is used to control water levels in the chain of lakes.

While trees and lakes are covered by two different branches of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Bill Schuster, a former NR Technician stationed at the agency’s offices in Side Lake, knows a thing or two about the up and down nature of water levels on the Sturgeon chain of lakes in French Township.

“On the wall there, because people always used to come in and complain about the water levels, I had a sign (with a quote from Mark Twain): Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over,” said Schuster, who is currently the chair of the township’s board of supervisors. “That has been the deal in Side Lake for the 40 years that I’ve been there.”

Years ago, when a resident or two thought the water levels were too high, they would run to the local sawmill and get a few boards made and then strategically place them on a dam at the outlet of the Sturgeon River near the Riverside Restaurant that controls water levels in the chain of lakes (which include Sturgeon, West Sturgeon, South Sturgeon, Little Sturgeon, and Side Lake).

“They’d have a stash and when they thought it was too low, they’d go drop some in there and then the guys that were getting flooded out, they’d go at midnight and they’d go pull them out,” Schuster said.

That kind of stuff doesn’t happen anymore, but that doesn’t mean water level concerns aren’t still an issue.

In fact, this summer many Side Lake residents – and the individuals who make up the French Township board – are extremely concerned about the low water levels they say are making life difficult for residents and visitors of the chain of lakes.

At a recent township board meeting nearly 70 people showed up (a rarity says Schuster) to express their concern and support efforts by the board to get the DNR to add two stop logs to a dam in hopes of raising levels.

Residents like Marie Erickson and her family, who have had a cabin on Little Sturgeon for 50 years and according to her, lake levels have never been as low as they are right now.

“All these years I haven’t seen (it like this) – this isn’t what it has been. We have sand bars where we’ve never had sand bars before,” she said. “We are having a lot of difficulty with boats on lifts and people getting through our channels on the five connecting lakes.”

State Dam Safety Engineer for the DNR, Jason Boyle, says DNR officials have heard the pleas but before anything can be done, a study needs to happen.

“Any changes to the structure would require permitting and a thorough analysis on potential flooding impacts,” Boyle said. “Adding additional stoplogs could cause future high-water events to flood properties and cause damage that would otherwise not occur with the existing dam configuration. The study would compare the lake levels for the existing and the proposed configuration during high water events.”

According to Kim Boland, the DNR’s area hydrologist out of Eveleth, permitting would be required to make any alterations to the outlet dam subject to Mn Rules 6115.0220 and 6115.0221, subpart 2.

“A detailed study would be required to meet State Rule for permitting in part to show that the alteration would not raise levels above what is considered natural conditions by creating a potential increase in flooding conditions,” she said.

According to Boyle a study hasn’t been done yet but should be complete by early 2022.

That delay is at the heart of the issue.

Schuster says the DNR did a study in 2007 - the Sturgeon (69-939) / Side (69-933) Lakes St. Louis County Outlet Analysis – and the recommendation then suggested an incremental approach to modifying the control structure to ensure no ill effects to lakeshore properties.

In 2010, the DNR added six-inch high stoplogs to six of the 11 stoplog bays on an experimental basis after conducting a study and issuing a permit for the modification of the dam.

But nothing has been done there since and no follow up to the recommendations has occurred.

In a written request for the stop logs to be placed sooner rather than later sent to the DNR, the board wrote, in part: “It has been 13 years since the analysis and several years since six stop logs were placed as described below. There have been no ill effects to lakeshore properties due to the placement of these stop logs.”

“The phone was always ringing because the people with high water didn’t like it and they would call and then the people with low water would call and finally the DNR had enough of it and said, ‘you know what, we are gonna set a level, and we will do an analysis and then we will monitor it, and then, when things aren’t right, we will adjust it,” Shuster said, adding that the person who wrote the analysis retired and the study and its recommendations were probably lost along the way as new people were hired.

In fact, Schuster and his board didn’t even know the analysis existed.

“All those years the (DNR) never did anything on their own, so we found out and said, ‘hey, why don’t you follow through on your project?’ And we had to make a bunch of them aware because it was new people and they didn’t know about the project,” he said.

“It just seems reasonable to us to put in two more stop blocks. Reading all the information this just seems like it would be a good incremental approach and then, once they are in, continue to do analysis – upstream and downstream – and if it warrants, put in two more or if we over did it, take one or two out,” Shuster said. “That’s all we are asking, for them to follow up. We’re just looking for some action and I don’t think we are being extreme.”

Boland says the report is specifically in reference to the six stoplogs that were added per the 2007 study in 2010 and that the report also called for officials to examine sufficient data collected over the next few years after that to make a “final determination as to the configuration of the dam.”

“Meaning further analysis of the existing condition is needed with presently collected data to verify that the modeled study was correct in the determination that the additional stoplogs were beneficial in low flow conditions and did not impact the 1% flood elevation” Boland said. “The study that was conducted did not include different configurations then what was installed in 2010. In order to increase the number of stoplogs it would need to be determined that there would be no impact to the 1% flood elevations.”

Schuster said the board has been in contact with local legislators including St. Louis County Commissioner Paul McDonald, Minnesota State Rep. Julie Sandstede and Minnesota Sen. David Tomassoni, both of whom are supportive and have been in contact with DNR officials in St. Paul to discuss the issue, Schuster said.

Still, to this point, there hasn’t been a change in the timeline during a summer that has seen water levels dropping across the area due to low snow totals last winter and a lack of rainfall since.

“Lake levels are entirely dependent upon the amount of snowfall and precipitation that an area receives, how much of the resultant moisture is contributed by runoff into the lake, how much water is recharged to or discharged from the lake through groundwater and how much water evaporates from the lake,” Boyle said.

Boland said dry conditions are having an impact on surface waters across the area.

“The region was abnormally dry last summer and still considered abnormally dry with stream flows within the watershed 76 – Little Fork River - reportedly at or below the Q75 rates (Weekly Streamflow Reports),” Boland said, adding that Q75 means that based on select historical stream gauge data 75% of the time water flows are above the current flow rate.

The DNR has a volunteer Lake Level Monitoring program, and that the Sturgeon Lake chain has a lake level gauge that was installed on June 21, 1989, that’s read by a volunteer reader and the data is submitted to the DNR.

That data is then to the DNR Lake Finder webpage and is available to the public.

According to the data, Sturgeon Lake “has historically been at and below the current lake level elevation,” Boland said.

On the ground in Side Lake, however, residents see things a little differently.

“Right now, the water is barely spilling over the lowest board, in fact, within a couple of days if we don’t get rain, I expect there won’t be anything flowing over that dam,” Schuster said. “So, this is kind of an extreme situation.”

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