The International Rainy Lake Board of Control and the Rainy River Water Pollution Board hosted its first-annual joint open house and public forum at La Place Rendez-Vous here Tuesday night in what proved to be a tense affair all evening.
Sensing the hostile atmosphere, Dennis Schornack—the new U.S. chairman of the International Joint Commission—opened the meeting by trying to placate local residents (many from the U.S. side) who blame government mismanagement and high rule curve regulations for exacerbating property damage during the heavy rains that hit the region June 9-10.
“I’ve come to listen to you,” said Schornack, who was making his first trip to the area.
He stressed the IJC tried to “get a complete picture” of the water levels in the district during the flooding. Characterizing the torrential rain as an “unusual event,” Schornack stood firmly behind the commission’s performance.
“We did our best,” he said. “We had a pretty good grip on what went on.”
To the murmuring crowd, this did not suffice.
The two issues which drew the most fire at last night’s meeting were government-mandated rule curves—a measurement used to dictate when gates at the dams should be open—and the response time of the IRLBC to the heavy rains.
Rick Cousins, the Canadian engineering advisor to the IRLBC, went through a multitude of graphs in an attempt to fashion an overall perspective on the flooding.
Cousins told the crowd the IJC had to balance concerns throughout the district, which meant taking into account the situation downstream at Rainy River as well as the flooding in Fort Frances and International Falls.
According to him, this was one of the reasons for the delay in opening up all the flood gates.
“The Rainy River hospital was in danger of flooding,” Cousins noted. “The concern [at that point] was the immediate flooding of the Town of Rainy River.”
But it wasn’t long until Cousins’ analysis was interrupted by angry questions shouted out by those on hand.
“Why don’t you lower the rule curves?” asked one impatient resident to applause from the crowd.
“The rule curves did increase the peak of Rainy Lake levels,” admitted Cousins. “But it was within the range expected.”
Cousins explained there is a delicate balance between high rule curves and their environmental benefits on one hand, and higher water levels on the other.
“Local governments need to adequately define hazard levels and enforce development standards,” he said. “Blaming the rule curve is not a solution.
“What’s difficult to realize is how much the [rule curve’s] impact really was,” he added. “It was only four inches.”
That sparked a sarcastic response from a boisterous section of the crowd.
“Somewhere in this meeting you got to start listening to us,” complained Harry Sweatt, a resident of the U.S. side. “When you’re talking about things we are interested in, you use squishy language.
“You’re not being all together square with us,” he charged.
The focus of the evening then switched to the question of the control of the dams.
In an open letter presented to the IRLBC before the meeting, Wilbur Fast of Ranier, Mn. raised concerns about the slow reaction time by the organization due to inherent flaws in the “management structure” of the IJC.
“The issue is much too complex for a bunch of guys in Washington to navigate,” agreed Sweatt. “[We] need protocols. People’s lives and property are at stake.”
To which Doug Brown, a Canadian member of the IRLBC, replied, “When you get up to 15 inches of rain in a two-day period, no matter what the protocols [are], you are going to have flooding.”
Although it was clear not everyone was going to leave the meeting satisfied, Schornack told the crowd no regulations are carved in stone.
“We are looking at all the data,” he pledged. “We will remain flexible.”
As he left the meeting, Koochiching County commissioner Wade Pavleck was encouraged the IJC was going review its policies. But he also understood the emotion surrounding the issue.
“If we have another flood next year, people are going to become unglued,” he warned. “They just want the IJC to do something rather than nothing.”