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Water still rising, sandbaggers tiring

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RANIER — The sun was shining Tuesday, but lakes and streams were still rising all along the Minnesota-Ontario border waters region.

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Truckloads of sand were rolling in, and filled sandbags rolling out, as part of a breakneck effort to keep floodwaters out of homes and businesses as the Rainy River surpassed record levels and Rainy Lake approached its high water mark.

Sandbagging also continued on Crane and Kabetogama lakes and on parts of the Ontario side of the vast, interconnected system of lakes and rivers.

“As bad as it is, this is only going to get worse. There’s more water coming down the system, and there’s more rain forecast for the weekend. It could be weeks until we see any real drop in the water levels,” said Rob Ecklund, Koochiching County commissioner.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton toured the area Tuesday morning, including a massive sandbagging operation at the city beach. He praised volunteers who have worked for days to save homes, resorts and cabins from flooding, calling their work “inspiring.”

“It’s a disaster…. But crises like this bring out the best in some people,” Dayton said.

“It’s real devastation. To see that much water spread out that wide,” Dayton said after touring flooded homes in the Pelland Junction area just west of International Falls.

The governor said he will wait for local officials to list public and private damage reports before potentially authorizing emergency aid from a new state fund created by the 2014 Legislature. There’s $3 million in the account and available.

“This will be the first time we’ve had a situation to use it,” the governor said, adding that he’d call a special legislative session if more money is needed.

International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson said crews were working to save both the city’s water treatment and sewage treatment plants from flooding, which could shut the systems down. A temporary clay dike around the sewage treatment plant failed, but a second, sandbag dyke appears to be holding the still-rising Rainy River at bay, Anderson said.

“At the water plant, we have about another foot” before the system is compromised by high water on Rainy Lake, Anderson said. The city could lose its water supply if that happens, he said.

Hydrologists say Rainy Lake could rise another foot or more before dropping and that it could be well into July before near normal levels are seen — assuming rainfall returns to normal levels after a record rainy June.

Ecklund and Koochiching County Sheriff Brian Jespersen said Tuesday that additional volunteers were expected to arrive from Winnipeg and Duluth later this week.

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