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Fearing homes will be lost to flooding lake in west-central Minnesota, residents beg for help

SPITZER LAKE, Minn. — Joe Stoi hoped he could pass his retirement home at Spitzer Lake to his grandson.

But the Oakdale man’s plan is starting to sink, literally. The land Stoi has owned for 45 years is nearly all underwater, his 20-year-old mobile home surrounded by water and flooding.

He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to save it.

“I worked my butt off on that sucker,” he said. “I did a lot of work up there for my retirement.”

He and others who own homes along the lake that lies about 30 miles southeast of Fergus Falls have spent the last several years fighting the rising tide. Spitzer Lake Trail, a road that leads to Stoi’s property, has been built up twice in three years. Water pumps run constantly, residents have lost beaches and the ground is shifting under some cabins.

The water crept upward last week as a slew of storms moved into the area, dropping almost 3 inches in three days, according to the National Weather Service.

Homeowners would like to see about a foot of water taken off the lake by the end of summer as a short-term solution.

“The long-term goal is to get a water-control structure on here so down the road we don’t have this issue again,” Spitzer Lake Association President Gary Olson said.

Spitzer Lake residents have reached out to local, state and federal leaders, hoping to find a solution before more land is swallowed up. Conversations with leaders date back more than a year, but residents feel they are not being heard or taken seriously, Olson said.

“We really expect more service than what we are getting,” he said.

Otter Tail County commissioners discussed the issue in the past and will meet again Tuesday, July 16, to talk about what can be done. But for the most part, residents along the lake are responsible for solving the problem, County Attorney Michelle Eldien said.

The county plans to walk residents through the process, but that could take months, Eldien said.

“Anything with moving water to another location is not something that you just do today without a thought process because you can move it and damage other property owners,” she said.

Complex process

Some lake homeowners, including Stoi, use their Spitzer Lake homes on the weekends. Others, like Ronald Christensen, live there full time.

Christensen’s house is across the road from Stoi’s trailer home. Christensen hasn’t lost his home yet, but his basement is flooding, forcing him to use a water pump 24/7.

“It’s just horrible because the county won’t do nothing about the water,” he said. “We’re getting more and more of it. It seems like it’s steadily coming up.”

The lake has no outlet, and residents who have been there for decades said they have never seen flooding like this in previous years. A few years ago, a blocked culvert just northeast of the lake was opened to prevent flooding on County Road 5.

Spitzer Lake residents believe the culvert that allows water to flow steadily down a stream into the lake is to blame.

That water, however, would naturally flow into the lake, said Julie Aaland, area hydrologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

“The issue with Spitzer Lake is, there’s not an easy outlet solution because it is surrounded by hills,” she said. “Anytime you are discharging water downstream, somebody’s getting the water.”

Otter Tail County tries to assist when it can, but ditch and water systems are the responsibility of property owners, Eldien said. In other words, the Spitzer Lake residents would have to decide how to move the water, apply for the permits to do so and find a way to fund the project, she said.

“We try to advise the property owners about what they need to do because the county can’t do that for them,” she said.

Spitzer Lake residents said they think the local or state government could pay for some, if not the majority, of a project to move water.

Discussions on finding a solution are in the early stages, Eldien said. The process to move water from the lake is complex and may require residents to hire an engineer, she said.

"It is way too premature to even have an idea on what the cost could be," said Kevin Fellbaum, engineer and drainage ditch inspector for the County Highway Department. "There are just way too many variables out there to even come up with a close estimate."

A local unit of government would have to apply for the funds, Aaland added. Eldien said she wasn’t sure if Spitzer Lake would qualify for that grant, but the county would look at any funds that could help in this situation, she noted.

There has been no legislation aimed directly at Spitzer Lake's flooding issues, said Rep. Mary Franson, R- Alexandria. She said legislators are aware of the issue and there is a collaborative effort with local entities to solve the problem.

When asked if the state Legislature should step in, she said, "We are doing what we can."

"I just can't come up with something and say, 'This is what's going to be done,' because there are processes in place," she said. "It's kind of out of the lawmakers' hands."

‘Something is going to happen’

Residents who see flooding along lakes have other options, Aaland said. They can elevate their properties, and funds are available for federal buyouts.

Lake homeowners like Amy and Matt Law have brought in sand to build up their shoreline, but most of it has disappeared. Stakes in the water mark where their beach used to be, a rock wall is vaguely visible under the surface of the lake and the foundation under their home is shifting.

Amy Law visited the lake often when she was a child. Seven years ago, the Laws bought the property where she visited and had planned to retire there.

Now they fear they may lose their investment.

“I had 30 years of history with the cabin knowing there had never been a flood before,” she said, noting previous owners never saw a situation like this.

About 70 residents have joined the Spitzer Lake Association, which was founded last month, in an effort to convince state and local leaders to acknowledge lake flooding. More than 40 people signed a petition filed June 17 calling on the county to create an outlet for the lake.

The county will discuss the petition at the July 16 meeting.

Amy Law said the residents don’t want the situation to turn into “us versus them.” They want to work with the county to find a solution, she said.

Stoi said he hasn’t been able to use his mobile home this year. If the water doesn’t go down this year, he fears the road leading to his island will go under.

“That whole island is going to be blocked,” Stoi said.

He doubts a solution will be found in time, but Olson and others said they have to find a solution.

“Something is going to happen,” Christensen said.