Road repairs to help farmers get in fields is a top priority

By Carol Stender

BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. — Tom Richels knows the importance of township and county roads, especially to farmers getting a start on spring fieldwork. That’s why the Wilkin County Highway Department engineer has had his crews work 12 hour days to fix roads damaged by spring flooding.

"The farmers need these roads," he said. "That’s why those crews work so hard. We have 90 pieces of equipment getting these roads ready."

It will be a few weeks before farmers can start fieldwork, Richels said. That should give the crews enough time to repair about 400 sites of county and township roads. Wilkin and Lake of the Woods counties are the only two in the state that maintain both county and township roads.


"It’s all repairable," Richels said. "It’s just too bad that sometimes you have to work on three miles of the road just to repair the half mile that had damage."

Richels said he area has had floods for 12 out of the 27 years he’s been county highway engineer.

This year was among the worst and earliest flooding. A rapid snow melt and culverts plugged with snow and ice resulted in overland flooding around March 15. It could’ve been worse, he said. There was still four feet of frost in the ground.

More than two inches of rain fell March 22 and floodwaters remained high for a few more weeks.

Water volume topped 13,000 cubic feet per second during the 1997 flood. This year volumes reached 15,500 cubic feet per second.

However, Breckenridge didn’t experience the severe flooding of 1997. A 3.5 mile diversion project involving six landowners diverted Otter Tail River waters around the city. The system, designed by the Army Corps of Engineers, helped reduce the flood potential for the communities of Wahpeton and Breckrenridge.

Mapping the river has helped in the flood fight, said Buffalo-Red River Watershed District office administrator Bruce Albright. The same should be done for overland flooding to determine how water moves once the ice and snow melts. The information would help developers and farmers.

Flood damage reduction equals better water quality, he said. When portions of ditches are worked with the cropland, the sediment runoff during a rain or flood event can clog culverts and diminish water quality.


In the 1990s, Wilkin County spent $20,000 on a project to re-establish road right-of-way. Fiberglass poles were placed along ditches marking the boundaries. The poles are gone now but it made landowners aware of runoff issues.

The Red River Watershed is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Wetland Protection Act on five to six sites within the watershed. The aim is to slow down or retard water run off. The concept is good but this year there was too much water, Albright said. The ground is saturated throughout central and northern Minnesota including the Buffalo-Red River watershed.

"There was just too much of it," Albright said of the water. "The systems couldn’t hold it back. The obvious solution is to find more sites to hold more water. Therein lies the problem."

In the future, all towns along the Red RIver will have diking systems, Richels said.

"But I don’t think we will be able to protect the country every time we have a flood," he added. The answer will be in water retention."

After the 1997 flood, many farmsteads in the Red River Valley area put up ring dikes. Wilkin County has already installed 10 to 12 ring dikes and has the same number on its to-do list.

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