Life below the dike

RICE LAKE It’s eerie. Costly. Some would even say dangerous. At the very least, daily life has become quite dicey for homeowners relying on soggy earthen dikes, and maybe a few sandbags, as a precarious defense against a relentless foe.

In what many believe to be an unprecedented occurrence, Rice Lake rose two feet under the ice this past winter. What emerged when ice covering the lake finally melted last week was wave action spurred by strong winds. Rice Lake is showing no signs of retreating. Quite the opposite. Slow but relentless, the unforgiving rise continues as it has for the past two years.

Lake properties along lower sections of shoreline succumbed to rising water long ago. One by one, permanent homes and summer get-aways have methodically become inundated and either abandoned or moved off foundations. Many homes that appear protected by extensive diking are getting wet from inside. Houses that have crawl spaces beneath them, a common form of construction at Rice Lake, have become overwhelmed with seepage.

The long, slow rise of the popular recreation spot southwest of Minot has created very soggy ground that, combined with a deep frost, has heaved concrete patios and driveways and caused homes to shift so much that cracks have appeared in walls. Doors refuse to open, their frames altered by shifting caused by wet ground. In some cases, the evidence can be seen in fractured rooflines or raised shingles.

Sad, tearful and emotional stories can be found all around Rice Lake where the relentless water gives no quarter. How much more will the lake rise? No one knows for certain, only that another foot or two of water would overpower many efforts to keep the water at bay and claim several more residences.

Living at a lake, whether it be year round or just for the summer, is supposed to be enjoyable, fun, relaxing and refreshing. Not so at Rice Lake. Living there means endless work and a continual mental strain for many residents. While some have been forced to give up the fight, others remain on the front line.

“I don’t want to leave. I love it here. This is my home,” said Cobi Hood.

It is his only home. Hood moved from Brainerd, Minn., to the Minot area when construction slowed in the Brainerd region and he had difficulty finding enough work to support his family. After hearing about the building boom in Minot, Hood opted to move and renew Cobi Hood Drywall. He spent the first year in North Dakota sharing a camper with two other men. He’d return home to Brainerd Friday night and make the return trip to Minot Sunday afternoon.

“I love my kids and wasn’t going to be away from them any longer,” said Hood. “That doesn’t work for me. I bought a house on a contract for deed and moved my family. We didn’t come out here because we were rich. We came out here to better our family, the American dream. Literally every penny to my name went into this home so we could have a place to live.”

Now Hood’s home is in peril, surrounded by an earthen and sandbag dike holding back rising Rice Lake. The lake level is estimated at two to three feet above Hood’s main floor. His family that once enjoyed the pleasures of lake living now sleep below the water line.

For a time living at Rice Lake proved to be a rewarding move. Hood and his wife had a third child while living in North Dakota and felt comfortable in a lake home setting very reminiscent of the thousands of lake homes found in the Brainerd area. Then everything changed.

The lake rose more than anyone anticipated. Hood’s wife was diagnosed with cancer.

“I just about lost the house last year,” said Hood while fighting back tears. “Some of this stuff gets a little emotional, it really does.”

Resiliency is a necessary personal requirement for living at Rice Lake these days. Hood received help from friendly sources in saving his home. When he told others he couldn’t afford to build a dike, they responded.

“I didn’t have the money to save the house and make payments at the same time,” said Hood. “If it wasn’t for Travis Bohl at Dig It Up I would have lost it. As he was rounding the corner the waves were coming over my small dike and flooding my house. They were able to save it. We haven’t had any water in the house yet, thank goodness.”

Even with an extensive and expensive dike, Hood’s home is showing the effects of months of high water a few feet away. So much shifting has occurred that a service door on the garage won’t move. Shingles are bowed up where the garage it attached to the house, more evidence of soggy ground. Concrete has pulled away from the house too. Other Rice Lake homeowners have similar damage.

Hood keeps several pumps running in an effort to thwart the persistent water. His electric bill has increased by $200 per month. More dike work is needed. The water is about 18 inches below his current dike, not much of a margin against a lake that continues to rise.

“My gut feeling is that it will just keep rising. It’s going to be another Devils Lake,” said Hood. “It’ll just keep going and keep going and keep going.”

Seepage through the ground has begun to enter Hood’s garage. Water pools in his driveway. He hopes that once the frost is completely out of the ground that the seepage will diminish. Others aren’t so sure. Nothing is for certain for residents of Rice Lake.

“There’s a lot of people suffering down here,” said Hood. “There’s people that are worse off with crawl spaces. My house is on a slab.”

Nevertheless, with the water behind Hood’s dike higher than his living room floor and with much uncertainty ahead, Hood and his family share the difficulties faced by many fellow Rice Lake residents.

In an effort to get some respite, to buy some time to figure out how to best deal with the rising water, Rice Lake began pumping water from the lake to a lowland above the lake. While the pumping has been credited with temporarily lowering the lake, it is also believed to have contributed to the most recent rise. The water pumped from the lake seeps into the underlying aquifer and returns to Rice Lake a few months later.

The Rice Lake board is in the process of obtaining the necessary easements to construct a pipeline that would carry excess Rice Lake water to the south where it would eventually flow into Lake Sakakawea. Some landowners leery of more construction and more water object to the plan, meaning the North Dakota State Water Commission has yet to approve a valid drain permit for the project.