by John Holler
Minnesotans pride themselves on their winter resiliency, but 2019 has been the “Neverending Story” of misery – complete with a Polar Vortex in January and the most February snow in recorded history. But, as the inevitable spring thaw comes, there are legitimate concerns being voiced that the worst may be yet to come.
As of March 4, the underground frost depth was 55 inches at the county’s monitoring station in Otsego. The term “polar vortex” hit home late in 2013 when temperatures dropped to record lows for extended periods and never let up despite a general lack of snow. The spring of 2014 was the worst Wright County has seen in years, when frost depth reached 72 inches – six feet. At this time last year, the frost depth reached 48 inches. In both 2016 and 2017, the maximum frost depth was 36 inches.
2019 has broken new ground. As a result, the combination of late-season snow and significant frost depth is increasing the potential for short-term and long-term flooding problems, according to Wright County Highway Engineer Virgil Hawkins.
“It’s really hard to gauge at this point, but it is concerning,” Hawkins said. “Historically, when we’ve had roads that are prone to being flooded over, when we make improvements on them, we factor that in and include that in the reconstruction process to raise the grade. The concern is that, if it gets really warm and the ground is still frozen or we get a big rainfall, that would be the Perfect Storm of potential problems.”
When flooding takes place, often times roads need to be closed to traffic. For most drivers, that is an inconvenient truth. For those who are in the emergency response field, that can be critical. Every minute lost due to detours can be the difference between tragedy and saving a life. Sheriff Sean Deringer said his department has identified annual problem areas – Delano and Rockford are typically in harm’s way on the Crow River and Mississippi River takes on the majority of upstream water – and pre-emptive, coordinated efforts are taken as problems arise so emergency responders aren’t caught by surprise.
“We know the roads better than anyone because of our patrols,” Deringer said. “If Route A is closed, we go to Route B. Our objective is to let all emergency response teams know as soon as we have a problem area what is going on. For the last few weeks, our emergency manager has been coming up with operational planning. At this time of year, our average high has been 36 degrees with melt going on. That hasn’t happened. I anticipate that when we get a turn in the weather, it’s going to be relatively quick. With that, there are concerns that we have to take care of and make sure plans are in place.”
While life-saving concerns take precedence to leisure activities, the potential for the 2019 meltdown also impacts the Parks & Recreation Department. Its spring objective is to prepare for the fishing/camping season and Director Marc Mattice is preparing for whatever the next month-plus has to offer in terms of how his department move forward.
“We’re expecting that most of our river system parks will have the potential for flooding issues,” Mattice said. “The biggest issue will be with fishing piers and docks. We have piers in the Mississippi River. We’ve had flooding issues in Otsego Park in the past. We may have to remove our playground equipment there and re-install it. If we have a later ice-out, it will delay our getting those in place because, once it warms up, we’re going to be behind the 8-ball on that by the time we open our parks on the first Friday in May. It’s still early March, so it’s hard to say how it will play out.”
Another issue will be with the antiquated county ditch system, which was created more than 100 years ago. Over the last decade, a concerted effort has been made to upgrade the system to accept more runoff water that the expansion of urbanization has created, but Commissioner Mark Daleiden said that it’s an uphill battle still be waged.
“We’re making good progress, but we’re still more reactive than proactive at this point,” Daleiden said. “When we see a problem, we fix it. This year is going to be a test of that because the rural areas deal with flooding issues and septic system issues that are serious problems when they arise. At this point, there’s really nothing we can do about it because they’re under snow and frozen ground. It’s just going to have to play out.”
Yet another concern for those rural areas not impacted by potential river flooding are farmers whose livelihood depends on getting a crop in the field as early as possible to maximize a yield. As much as Wright County has grown in population, a significant portion of land surface of the county remains agricultural. Commissioner Charlie Borrell is a farmer by trade and said that, while flooding isn’t a primary concern of farmers, the delay in getting crops in the field when they’re muddied by excess late-winter snow moisture is going to create its own set of issues.
“Farmers have to deal with the conditions you get from one year to the next,” Borrell said. “The amount of snow we’ve had over the last month is going to make for a lot of questions as to when you can get your equipment in the field. We’ve had years where you can’t get a full season in. This may be one of those because, right now, things aren’t looking good.”
As much as the winter of 2019 has been one for the record books, the spring of 2019 may pose its own place in history – and it may not be a good place to be.
John Holler covers the Wright County Board of Commissioners.