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Town grapples with $5 million dam bill

Kathryn, N.D. Mayor Dave Majerus surveys the damaged Clausen Springs Dam on July 16. It may be less costly to relocate the tiny town of Kathryn — something the mayor says is not an option — than to replace the defective earthen dam that threatens it.   AP Photo by James MacPherson

Kathryn, N.D. Mayor Dave Majerus surveys the damaged Clausen Springs Dam on July 16. It may be less costly to relocate the tiny town of Kathryn — something the mayor says is not an option — than to replace the defective earthen dam that threatens it. AP Photo by James MacPherson

James MacPherson
AP Writer

Kathryn, ND — 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.

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.

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.

“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.

Federal disaster money could be used, but only to 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 money to bring it up to code.

It would cost about $100,000 to repair the emergency spillway, restoring the dam to its pre-flood condition, Chad Engels, an engineer with West Fargo-based Moore Engineering Inc., said. For about the same price, officials could also permanently drain the lake, he said.

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.

“It would probably be better buying out Kathryn, which isn’t much of a town to begin with,”
Gordon Broadwell, a retired farmer who lives on high ground two miles north of Kathryn, said.

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