After COVID, then flooding, ‘This is the year that we talk about’ relief for border waters, Walz says
While Gov. Tim Walz and some legislators are talking flood relief, for some resort owners on Minnesota's northern border, 2023 might be the first "normal" summer season they have had since 2019
ANGLE INLET, Minn. — In a typical summer on Minnesota’s remote Northwest Angle, the middle of August is when the fishing and tourist trades start to slow down. The water in Lake of the Woods is warmer by then, there is a first hint of fall in the air, and folks who have been pulling walleyes all summer start to think about getting their kids back in school and getting their crops harvested.
For Paul Colson, the third-generation owner of Jake’s Northwest Angle — a popular resort at the extreme northern tip of Minnesota — the middle of August 2022 was notable for a different reason.
“We had some people in my cabins in May. We were shut down June and July, and on Aug. 20, I was able to walk to my store with dry feet,” he recalled.
Lake of the Woods, the Rainy River and Rainy Lake were hit by historic flooding last summer, which dealt a devastating blow to resort owners and left countless property owners with $25,000 or more in damage to docks, structures and shorelines.
The high water came on the heels of two consecutive years of disruptions due to the pandemic, which curtailed travel business and — thanks to Canada’s strict closure of their border — cut off road access to the Northwest Angle and islands of Lake of the Woods. That meant losing the business of all but the most determined tourists who were willing to travel two hours by water to reach their favorite fishing spots.
“If you’d have told me I’d have had two years of COVID and then this. … Somebody said, ‘It’s going to get worse,’ and I’d have said, ‘How the hell is it going to get worse?’ ” Colson said.
The water had receded to more manageable levels by September, and there are hopes among resort owners, cabin owners and tourists for a more “normal” summer season for the first time since 2019. But financial relief remains the need among many as they seek to rebuild infrastructure and regrow their base of visitors who may have looked elsewhere for fishing vacations during the pandemic border shutdown and the flooding.
After speaking at the Explore Minnesota Tourism annual conference on Tuesday, Feb. 28, Gov. Tim Walz told Northland Outdoors that he is well aware of the problems faced on the state’s northern border.
“I know, being in International Falls and standing on people’s decks as they were fishing, literally,” he recalled. “I’m trying to make the best of things, but those resorts were all closed, as we know.”
Walz, who was first elected in 2018 running on a “One Minnesota” theme, and stressing the need for unity between the state’s various regions and interests, reiterated that idea on Tuesday and said he is open to talking about finding some avenues to provide relief funds for the border regions.
“I think this is the year that we talk about that, and I’m trying to make this case a little better that we’ve gotten into this bad habit of one area of the state criticizing another type of thing,” he said. “What goes on in Lake of the Woods impacts people in Mankato, and vice versa.”
Specifically, Walz proposed doubling the resources available in the current state emergency response fund, which would allow financial relief without waiting for federal officials to declare a disaster area for a particular region.
State Sen. Grant Hauschild, D-Hermantown, who represents Koochiching County in the Legislature, helped with the sandbagging efforts in hard-hit places like Ranier and Crane Lake last summer. After meeting with the governor and his chief of staff this week, Hauschild is signing on to a bill which would increase that emergency fund’s coffers from $20 million to $40 million.
“It was pretty incredible to see,” Hauschild said of his visits to the swollen Rainy River in 2022. “I’m originally from Fargo and remember growing up with the ‘97 flood and … it was very, very comparable.”
Hauschild said the fund would allow counties such as Lake of the Woods and Koochiching to apply directly for state aid in the form of grants and forgivable loans to facilitate recovery from the flooding.
That could help property owners like Colson, who explored a class-action lawsuit against the Lake of the Woods Control Board for violating a 1925 treaty that sets the maximum level of the lake — regulated to a certain extent by a dam in Kenora, Ontario — roughly a foot lower than the point the waters reached nearly a century after the treaty was signed.
Most of Colson's cabins are elevated, so he was able to avoid serious structural damage, and he joked that with no paying customers for much of last season, there was ample time available to look into their options in the courtroom. Colson admitted not many others were interested in a lawsuit, but in fairness, they had bigger issues with rising water.
“People were busy just swimming, just trying to keep their doors open,” he said. “Everybody else was trying to save their frontage. If you had any exposure (to the lake), it was terrifying.”