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Valley City fights record flooding along Sheyenne River; Fargo sends 400,000 sandbags west

A clay levee is built higher along Chautauqua Boulevard on Friday in Valley City. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
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VALLEY CITY, N.D. - Contractors and residents here are in a race to add a foot and a half to their levees to protect the area against what is expected to be a record crest of 21.2 to 21.5 feet on the Sheyenne River by Tuesday.

That's at least half a foot higher than the 20.69-foot record crest of 2009 in Valley City.

The scrambling in 8-plus inches of wet, sloppy snow Friday came following the news that more water had to be released from the Baldhill Dam upstream of the city.

It's the second such surprise surge in a week for those living beneath the dam, which controls water coming down the river at bloated Lake Ashtabula.

Bulldozers redeployed to levees in the downtown and Chautauqua Park areas Friday, while the city and Barnes County purchased 400,000 sandbags from Fargo with the goal of raising levees to 24 feet, officials said.

City Administrator Jon Cameron said sandbagging restarts in earnest today.

"We're going to be calling on everybody," he said.

Col. Michael Price, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Paul Division, said work on the levees is not expected to be finished until Tuesday, and the work is being prioritized.

"It will be close. It will be finish-line stuff," said Price, adding that contingency dike plans are being made to back up trouble spots in the first lines of defense.

Contractors brought in 80 trucks to haul clay and opened a new borrow pit, Price said.

Another 80 National Guardsmen were requested to join the 106 or so already on duty here, Cameron said.

The corps is also raising levees in Lisbon to 24.5 feet.

The corps planned to increase Baldhill Dam outflows Friday afternoon from 6,500 cubic feet per second up to 7,000 cfs, said Rich Schueneman, re­source manager at the dam.

That will raise the river level in Valley City to about 20.7 or 20.8 feet today. Either level would break the record of 20.69 feet set in 2009, when flows from the dam measured 6,700 cfs, Schueneman said.

On Sunday or Monday, the corps will again increase flows from Baldhill to 7,500 cfs, which will be a record discharge rate for the dam.

That's expected to raise the river in Valley City to 21.2 to 21.5 feet, the corps' St. Paul District office said.

Mayor Bob Werkhoven said crews had just finished getting the city's dikes to 22.5 feet Thursday.

"We were feeling pretty good," he said. "We were pretty happy yesterday. Now it (the river forecast) changed again. We're getting used to that."

The two contractors involved in putting up the city's clay levees, IBI of Fargo and 6D of Valley City, were already "on full bore," Price said.

At one stretch on Main Avenue in front of the visitor's center, the road was closed off and a pump chugged away, sending water that had leaked from behind HESCO barriers back into the swollen Sheyenne River.

Price said another levee by a local greenhouse was also being stressed.

Fargo agreed Friday to sell Valley City and Barnes County 400,000 sandbags for $1.20 each, the cost to make them, said Terry Ludlum, who oversees Fargo's Sandbag Central operations. He said Fargo city commissioners had approved selling up to 500,000 bags if needed.

Cameron said many of the bags would be stored in the North Dakota Winter Show buildings and the rest would be staged where needed, he said.

The releases from Baldhill Dam are necessary to make room for additional inflows and to keep Lake Ashtabula from topping the dam in an uncontrolled release, Schueneman said.

Valley City's temporary dikes are built to a river level of about 22.5 feet, meaning the dikes would have just more than a foot of freeboard when flows hit 7,500 cfs, Cameron said.

"They are already very stressed," he said of the dikes.

They'll have to endure that stress for a while, Schueneman said, as flows will likely remain above 7,000 cfs for about 10 days.

Inflows into Lake Ashtabula are expected to hit 9,500 cfs in about five days, the National Weather Service predicts.

Flows on the Sheyenne at Warwick and Cooperstown upstream of the dam remain above 2009 levels, Schueneman said.

"It's the volume of the water that's coming down the river," he said. "It's just historic."

At Valley City State University, sandbags sat on pallets outside the student center of the mostly quiet campus.

Meanwhile, VCSU physical plant workers plugged a drain with several yards of concrete to keep river water from backing up into the campus.

"This will take care of it," said Pat Hoover, the assistant facilities director, as the gray gunk was shoveled into a circle of sandbags around the drain.

Greg Rasmussen, who lives on the south side of town, says he's three rows of houses back from the river.

"It's kind of scary. There's just so much at play. Thank your lucky stars we're not underwater already," he said. "I don't know how long these dikes can hold."

"We don't need déjà vu," said Greg Rockneberg, who also lives a block from the river. "I had a geyser of sewage coming up through the basement" in 2009.

Dottie Werkhoven stopped her car in the parking lot of the North Dakota Job Center and then walked over the railroad tracks to look at the bloated river.

"My husband is mayor, and I haven't seen him for two and a half weeks," she said. "We've lived here for 40 years, and I've never seen it (the river) like this. ... I have to sneak a look at this every once in a while."

Doug Anderson, the director of marketing and communications for VCSU, said the school had not yet gotten a call from the city for help but is ready to put out the call to their students.

"They've been great," he said.

Overall, the school has handled this round of high water well, he said. And while some students may have been hoping for a break, classes were still in session Friday.

For now, the school is in a "wait-and-see mode," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporters Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583 and Mike Nowatzki at 241-5528