Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Minnesota's river of thieves a source of misery for many

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RED LAKE DAM, Minn. --  Of all the rivers and lakes that drain into the Red River watershed, one of the largest also happens to be the most obscure.

Most Winnipeggers know the Assiniboine, Souris, Pembina, Rat and Roseau rivers, mainly because they partly flow through Manitoba. Many others now know of the Wild Rice and Sheyenne in North Dakota, mainly because of the woes in the Fargo region earlier this week.

But Minnesota's Red Lake River largely escapes the attention of Manitobans -- even though it happens to be the Red River's second-largest tributary as well as one of the sources of the misery that afflicted Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997.

The Red Lake River likely owes its unusually low profile to its location. It cuts a 310-kilometre swath across a pastoral but otherwise unremarkable stretch of northwestern Minnesota, beginning at an eponymous lake that also happens to be the largest body of fresh water in the state.

Near the eastern fringe of the vast Red River drainage basin, on a marshy plateau where the prairies meet the boreal forest, Red Lake occupies 1,150 kilometres, almost all of it located within the Red Lake Indian Reservation, an Ojibwa nation.

All the water flowing out of Red Lake's upper and lower lobes -- two interconnected ovals that may rightly be considered separate bodies of water -- first drains through a partly diked-up wetland known as Zah Gheeng Marsh.

This is a placid, if not idyllic place, just like the entire eastern reaches of the Red Lake drainage basin.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, as residents north of Moorhead, Minn., were struggling with a cresting Red, a massive flock of tundra swans -- hundreds if not thousands of migrating waterfowl -- paused on a farmer's soggy field south of Zah Gheeng Marsh.

At its upper reaches, the Red Lake River is unusually clear. This aquamarine ribbon meanders through more marshland before it reaches Thief River Falls, a Minnesota town with a name apparently inspired by an age-old land dispute between the forest-dwelling Ojibwa and the Plains-dwelling Dakota Sioux.

The Red Lake River then darkens into a muddy brown as it descends along a steeper grade, crashing within steep banks through the towns of Red Lake Falls and Crookston on its way to the Red River at East Grand Forks, Minn. Crookston, the final stop along the way, was not named after any land dispute, despite the fact it appears to maintain the "thief river" theme.

According to the town's website, a soldier named Colonel Crooks showed up in 1857 and started working on the railroad that would spur development in the region.

But some other residents wanted to name the town Davis, after its first mayor.

"Supposedly, a coin was flipped to settle the question," the town proclaims on its website.

But the river has stolen a few livelihoods in Crookston, which experienced its own share of suffering during the flood of 1997.

Efforts to build up permanent flood-protection are ongoing, as row of flood-prone homes along low-lying Bridge Street, near downtown Crookston, were only expropriated this year to make way for higher levees.

The flood of 2011 is expected to crest on Wednesday without overflowing any levees in Crookston.

But the river of thieves has already claimed some property.

The empty homes on Bridge Street sit dilapidated, with police tape hanging haphazardly across abandoned doorways, awaiting demolition crews.

The devastation was worse in 1997 downstream at East Grand Forks, which now has flood walls to contain the Red Lake River.

The Red is expected to crest in Grand Forks on Friday, well below the dikes protecting both sides of the river.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2011 A4

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