Welcomed assistance

Rice Lake property owners welcome any financial relief they can get in their flood battle, and they got one from the Ward County Commission Tuesday.

Commissioners approved a contract that enables the Rice Lake Recreation Service District to save money while continuing to pump onto 53 acres of county-owned land in an attempt to stay ahead of the rising water.

The lake came up a foot in the past 12 days, Steve Zaun, chairman of the Rice Lake Board told the commission.

“This is no more a flood. This is a war,” he said. “I don’t know where the end of this war is.”

Rice Lake property owners have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure, homes and the flood fight, Zaun said. Some homeowners already have lost, depleting the tax base remaining to continue the fight. There currently are 167 property owners at Rice Lake, including 36 year-round homeowners.

“Some have their entire life savings invested in the properties that are continuing to go under water,” Zaun said.

The Rice Lake district has been pumping for about three years onto diked, county land. The district subleases the county property from a farmer at a price several thousand dollars higher than the agreement offered by the county Tuesday.

This year, the commission withheld the acreage from going out on bids to instead make the land available to the Rice Lake district. Commissioners agreed to lease for $50 an acre for the next two years, for an annual total of $2,650, after considering figures both higher and lower.

Zaun initially said the district would like to see rent remain at the $35 an acre rate paid by the previous bidder. Commissioner John Fjeldahl said that rate likely would increase if the land were put out on bids again. Fjeldahl added that temporarily flooding the land would leave the land less productive for some years afterwards.

Zaun said the Rice Lake Board likely would agree to $100 an acre, which the commission then made moves to approve until Commissioner Jack Nybakken spoke up.

“I am struggling with this amount. This group came in thinking they would get a little bit of help from the county,” Nybakken said. “Considering what their expenses are and what costs are going to be, I would like to see it lower than that.”

“I really believe we could go cheaper, too. These people are in a bad way down there,” commission chairman Jerome Gruenberg said. “If that means a little less revenue off that land for a couple of years, so be it.”

Commissioners Shelly Weppler and Alan Walter supported the lower rent, but Fjeldahl did not. He noted the county would get no rent in the year after the two years of pumping while the land was recovering. However, following the 4-1 vote to amend the amount from $100 to $50 an acre, Fjeldahl joined the other commissioners in supporting the amended motion.

The contract also provides for the district to post a bond to ensure reclamation once flood waters recede.

In separate action, the commission agreed to the district running a pipeline through one of its road culverts if it does not affect the culvert’s drainage. County engineer Dana Larsen is to review the proposal and report to the commission’s highway committee.

Zaun made the request to use the culvert if the Rice Lake Board were to decide to relocate the existing pipeline used in pumping the lake. The relocation would be part of a project to switch from a generator to a permanent electrical supply to the pump. The switch would reduce the cost and ease of pump operation somewhat, but Zaun said the benefits may be too insignificant to persuade the board to make the change.

The board’s proposed permanent solution is a larger pumping project. It is awaiting a judge’s decision in litigation over easements from landowners to install pipeline to drain the lake.

The county commission also authorized the use of dirt from county land to help the district build up a road. The district borrowed dirt last fall to raise the same road that the rising lake is threatening again. In addition, the district has been working on its sewer infrastructure to protect it from failing.

Zaun said the district has been talking with First District Health Unit about health concerns associated with flooded properties. He said health officials planned another tour of the lake area this spring, when a plan will be developed for cleaning up inundated homes. About 30 homes are sitting in water, he said.