Image: Woman who lives near dam
James MacPherson  /  AP
Jennifer Olonia surveys the bloated Des Lacs River at her home in Burlington, N.D., on Thursday. Olonia and her husband have refused to leave the area threatened by a dam that is in danger of breaching from floodwaters.
updated 4/14/2011 6:27:05 PM ET 2011-04-14T22:27:05

The Des Lacs River in northwest North Dakota began a slow drop on Thursday, but authorities continued to monitor a weak and leaky dam protecting a neighborhood of about 30 homes.

Water levels had fallen more than a foot and the river had retreated from overflowed banks by about 3 feet compared to a day earlier, state and local officials said. Water behind the troubled Burlington Dam No. 1 was down by about a half-foot, said Todd Sando, North Dakota's state engineer.

"The good news is the dam is still there and it's holding steady," Sando said Thursday afternoon.

Flooding fears had eased elsewhere in North Dakota. A 30-mile stretch of Interstate 29 reopened north of Fargo after being closed by overland flooding, and to Fargo's west, officials said Valley City appeared poised to escape flooding from the Sheyenne River after raising its levees.

In Burlington, the strength of the 77-year-old dam has been suspect for decades but this year's flooding has spurred a need to either repair the dam or intentionally breach it by next spring, Sando said. "We're not going to leave it the way it is," he said.

The dam was built in the 1930s for irrigation and to provide water to homesteaders. Officials said the reservoir behind it no longer serves either purpose. Sando said draining the reservoir through a planned breach would relieve the pressure, but areas nearby might still be susceptible in flood years.

For now, authorities are watching the ailing structure with remote video cameras, fearing that any attempt to shore up the dam — or even walk across it — could cause it to collapse.

Fire Chief Karter Lesmann said authorities went door-to-door to about 30 homes on Wednesday night to warn residents that the dirt-and-rock dam could wash out. About one-fourth of the 200 people in immediate danger left, he said.

"We told them all to leave last night," Lesmann said Thursday. "We're not going to tell them again."

About 1,200 people live in Burlington, located about 8 miles northwest of Minot. Those in most immediate danger are on the west edge of town.

Warnings would be issued by a reverse 911 telephone system if the dam fails, Lesmann said.

Sando said any breach in the dam would be slowed by an adjacent railroad bridge before water would hit homes. He said no homes would be in danger of being swept away from the current.

An expected 3-foot wall of water would decrease to a foot high about a mile downstream, he said. The affected homes were well within a mile of the dam.

Jennifer Olonia and her husband, Matt, have remained at their home to try to save it from the bloated river, which has made its way into their basement. They worried about not being able to hear emergency telephone calls at their home because of noise from vacuum cleaners and sump pumps that are being used to suck water from their home.

"We're doing what we got to do," Jennifer Olonia said, filling a 10-gallon shop-vac every minute or so Thursday. "It's sludge, mud and yuck and more sludge, mud and yuck. It's a mess."

Olonia, a plumber, and his wife, a restaurant cook, have taken off work the past several days to save their home. Their heater has been swamped by floodwater so the couple has been running their oven with the door open for heat. Temperatures were in the mid-20s Thursday morning.

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The river had receded several feet on the Olonias' property in less than a day, though a beaver was swimming in floodwater that had been their yard. Water that was bumper-high on their pickup Wednesday was just a few inches high on Thursday. They still worry a dam break could ruin their home despite sandbag fortifications.

"We're hoping we have enough clearance to handle a breach," she said. "But nobody knows."

Authorities had considered dropping half-ton sandbags from a National Guard helicopter to shore up the dam that stands between the endangered homes and the river. But state engineers said the sandbags could do more harm than good.

The Olonias and others are frustrated that nothing had been done to shore up the damaged dam that has been suspect for years.

"They should be doing something because something is better than nothing," Jennifer Olonia said.

In addition to irrigation, the 100-foot-long dam was built to provide water for homesteads, state records show. It was designed to hold water at a depth of 28 feet at its face.

"It was made to help people, now years later it's actually hurting us," Matt Olonia said. "And it looks like nobody is going to do anything about it expect let Mother Nature take its course."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Explainer: Spring flood forecast

  • NOAA

    "A large swath of the North Central United States is at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring," the National Weather Service said in its latest forecast on Feb. 24. Below are the scenarios by region.

  • North Central U.S.: above average

    Image: Ice backs up on Mississippi River
    Emily M Rasinski  /  St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP
    Ice backs up on the Mississippi River around the Clark Bridge in Alton, Ill., north of St. Louis, on Jan. 24.

    Heavy late summer and autumn precipitation (twice the normal amount since October in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota) have left soils saturated and streams running high before the winter freeze-up. NWS models show this year’s snowpack contains a water content ranked among the highest of the last 60 years.

    The combination put a large portion of the North Central United States at risk of moderate to major flooding this spring, extending from northeastern Montana through western Wisconsin and along the Mississippi River south to St. Louis.

    Information provided by NOAA on February 17, 2011, indicated Fargo, N.D., has a near 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 30 feet. At a stage of 30 feet, portions of downtown Fargo begin flooding and temporary dike construction is necessary. Approximately a 20 percent chance exists of reaching or exceeding the 40.8 foot record set in 2009. Grand Forks, N.D., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 46 feet. There is approximately a 40 percent chance of Devils Lake, N.D., exceeding 1,455 feet, which could partially inundate portions of the town of Minnewauken, including critical infrastructure and roads across the lake, emergency service routes and possibly a small section of the Amtrak train line.

    There is potential for moderate to major flooding on the Milk River and its tributaries in northeastern Montana. The Milk River near Glasgow Montana has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding the major flood stage of 27 feet. Some minor ice jam flooding is already occurring in Montana; additional flooding resulting from ice jams is likely throughout the late winter and early spring.

    The James River at Huron, S.D., has about a 90 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 15 feet and a 30 percent chance of exceeding the record 21.2 foot level set in 1997. The Big Sioux River at Brookings, S.D., has a greater than 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 12 feet and about a 30 percent chance of exceeding the 14.77-foot record set in 1969.

    The Mississippi River is likely to see major flooding from its headwaters near St. Paul, Minnesota, downstream to St. Louis. St. Paul, MN., has about a 95 percent chance of exceeding major flood stage of 17 feet, where secondary flood walls are deployed to protect the St. Paul Airport. Further downstream, the risk of major flooding on the Mississippi (Iowa, Illinois and Missouri borders) will persist into the spring. Much of that region’s snowpack typically accumulates later in the winter. The quantity of spring rains and late-season snow will determine the magnitude of flooding in the Middle Mississippi Valley.

  • Northeast: above average

    Image: Frozen Hudson River
    Mike Groll  /  AP
    The Hudson-Athens Lighthouse is frozen in ice on the Hudson River and in front of the Catskill Mountains in Hudson, N.Y., on Jan. 14.

    There is a small area of above average flood risk in portions of the Northeast, primarily across Southern New England and the Catskills Mountains in N.Y. state. As a result of October and November rain storms, these regions had above normal soil moisture levels prior to the winter freeze, followed by above average snowfall, and river icing in many locations.

    If snowpack and river icing conditions were to persist beyond mid-March, this area could have an elevated risk of spring flooding during the melt period, especially if heavy rains fall during the melt.

  • Southern plains: below average

    Image: Dry area of Texas
    Eric Gay  /  AP
    An irrigation system is used to bring water to a dry field near Hondo, Texas on Dec. 15.

    Fall and winter precipitation over Texas and New Mexico was significantly below average, ranging from 20 to 75 percent of normal from October 2010 to mid-February 2011. Portions of the Pecos River and the Rio Grande basins received as little as 10 percent of normal rainfall. Soil Moisture Analysis by the Climate Prediction Center show drier than normal soils from the surface to as deep as 2 meters.

    This deficit will minimize the amount of water that can be converted to river flows during any rainstorm. Current stream flow conditions as measured by the US Geological Survey range from near average too much below average for stations across this region.

  • Mid-Atlantic, Southeast: below average

    Image: Dry Georgia farm
    David Goldman  /  AP
    Farmer Aries Haygood shows how dry the top layer of soil is on his freshly planted onion farm in Lyons, Ga., on Dec. 10.

    Fall and winter precipitation over the Mid Atlantic and Southeast ranged from 50 to 75 percent of average for this period. Isolated portions of South and North Carolina only received between 25 and 50 percent of normal precipitation. Therefore, soil moisture is well below normal across most of the Southeastern US and the Mid-Atlantic.

    Deficits in the precipitation and soil moisture water contents translate into below average stream flow conditions for much of the region and a below average flood risk for the spring.

  • West: no forecast yet

    Image: Snow in Sierras
    Scott Sady  /  AP
    A utility worker restores service to homes around Lake Tahoe, Calif., on Dec. 20 after a storm that dumped up to 10 feet of snow in places.

    Late February is too early to determine spring flooding potential across the Western U.S. Much of the snowfall which determines spring runoff in the mountain west accumulates during the remainder of the winter and spring.

    Snowpack remains above and much above average in many regions. However, extreme high temperature can lead to elevated melt rates at any time during spring. There is still ample time left in the accumulation period for the spring flood potential to change.

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