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Weakened dam forces town to consider move

Damaged Dams
Mayor Dave Majerus of Kathryn, N.D., surveys the damaged Clausen Springs Dam. It may be less costly to relocate Kathryn than to replace the defective earthen dam that threatens it.James Macpherson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

All that's left of this southeastern North Dakota town is a bar, a church, a post office and about 55 people who call it home — but if floods like the ones that hit last spring begin to rise again, it could be destroyed.

That's led some to quietly joke that the town may not be worth holding onto at all. In conversations among townspeople and even local officials, some are wondering if moving Kathryn might be cheaper than the $5 million or more it could cost to replace the Clausen Springs Dam.

The mayor, however, won't even consider the idea of uprooting the town.

"Five million dollars is a drop in the bucket to save a town," Mayor Dave Majerus said of Kathryn, which is shrouded by rolling hills, pastureland and crop fields about 60 miles southwest of Fargo.

The conversation has revealed a deeper problem in the vulnerable community: Just who, if anyone, will foot the bill to repair the dam? It's one of up to 30 smaller, mostly earthen dams for which it could cost millions to fix damage caused by erosion.

Kathryn's 55 residents were evacuated for a few days in April after heavy flooding began eroding the dam, six miles west of the town. It was just one segment of the weather disaster that pummeled most of North Dakota, sending the Red River to a record level in Fargo and causing an ice jam on the Missouri River in Bismarck.

In a scene replayed across the state, trucks hauled in clay to fortify the dirt and grass spillway at the dam near Kathryn and North Dakota National Guard soldiers in helicopters dropped more than 100 one-ton sandbags to help shore it up.

Months after the rivers receded, the erosion damage to dozens of small earthen dams is still being assessed statewide. It's forcing officials to talk — if only halfheartedly — about the possibility of moving the town of Kathryn rather than fixing the dam. Other dams, which are not threatening towns, might never be fixed.

Lake the size of 50 football fields
The Clausen Springs Dam is about 50 feet high and about 700 feet long and holds back a lake about the size of 50 football fields. It was built in 1967, before state dam safety standards were enacted, and created a picturesque lake and campgrounds. It protects Kathryn, which was founded in 1900 and named for a daughter of the president of Northern Pacific Railroad, which extended track to the area.

"Everybody likes it, but nobody wants to lay claim to it now because of the cost to repair it," Majerus said of the dam.

Lee Grossman, the assistant Barnes County state's attorney, said a written agreement between the state and county "doesn't say who's responsible when an act of God destroys the dam.

"That's still open for interpretation," Grossman said.

Money for some of the work could come through federal disaster funds, but they would only repair the dam to the state it was in before last spring's floods, said Todd Sando, an assistant engineer for the state Water Commission. The Clausen Springs Dam would still need county and state funds to bring it up to code.

County officials have hired an engineering company to provide an estimate of how much it would cost to repair the dam and to study how bad the damage would be if the dam failed. Chad Engels, an engineer with West Fargo-based Moore Engineering Inc., said rebuilding the dam and bringing it into compliance would cost "$5 million, give or take one or two million."

It would cost about $100,000 to repair the emergency spillway, restoring the dam to its pre-flood condition, Engels said. For about the same price, officials could also permanently drain the lake, he said.

Five feet of water possible
It's unlikely Kathryn would be leveled by "a wall of water" if the dam broke, but it would likely be destroyed by floodwater and mold, Engels said. His firm is still working on its worst-case scenario study, but he believes floodwaters would reach 5 feet in the town.

"If the dam broke, water would be all over the place," he said.

It isn't clear how much it would cost to actually relocate the town, and the idea has not been formally proposed. No cost estimates have been drafted. But a similar idea was executed in a larger North Dakota town years ago for less than the estimated cost of repairing the Kathryn dam.

The town of Churchs Ferry was bought out by the government in 2000 because of the rising Devils Lake. Churchs Ferry was nearly cleared of homes after the $3.5 million Federal Emergency Management Agency buyout. The town had about 100 residents at the time; only a handful remain.

Gordon Broadwell, a retired farmer who lives on high ground two miles north of Kathryn, said he's safe from the floodwater if the dam breaks. But he thinks the dam is dangerous for his neighbors and the town if the area gets another flood like the one earlier this year.

"Next year, if the same thing happens, she'll let go," he said. "It would probably be better buying out Kathryn, which isn't much of a town to begin with."