By Louis Hoglund

The raging Pelican River was flowing up the foundations and doorways of the rear sides of commercial buildings on the west side of the Pelican Rapids downtown business district during the intense rains on Memorial Day.

Little waves can be transformed into tidal waves because of the high water on Pelican area lakes. 

Water levels, 20 percent higher than the highest on record, prompted an emergency “No Wake” zone for Pelican Lake—through June 25. The 30-day restriction prohibits wakes within 300 feet of the shoreline. 

Water has been leaking into crawl spaces and damaging docks, not to mention shoreline erosion to varying degrees on nearly every shoreline—north, south, east, and west.

“The waves have been so powerful that they’ve actually collapsed rip rap on shore and retaining walls,” said Keith Berndt, president of the Pelican Lakes Area Property Owners Association. 

Since wind directions have been erratic and all over the place, there is little shoreline that hasn’t had an impact. “We’ve had windy days, from all directions—so it has been very widespread,” added Berndt. 

Pelican Lake is 20 percent higher than 2014, which was the highest recorded level. 

Detroit Lake set a new record, which held for 78 years. Melissa is up, Sallie—basically all the lakes on the Pelican River. 

It has been the wettest spring in nearly a century-and-a-half, by some records. 

Torrential rains again raised water levels on Memorial Day, as shown here at the Pelican River dam in Pelican Rapids. Photo by Andrew Johnson

Water is high just about everywhere, but the Pelican River system’s situation can be traced up to the Tamarac Wildlife refuge north of Detroit Lakes, according to Steve Henry. He is the freshwater manager for the Pelican and Lida Lakes Improvement Districts. 

“The rain and snow melt up in Tamarac overwhelmed the wetlands there…and pushed Detroit Lakes and Melissa over their banks,” said Henry. 

As he explained it, a mass of snowmelt and rain runoff occurred in a much shorter time frame. Snow cover was heavy, but the cool spring slowed the thaw—so when the historically heavy rains came, the snowmelt and the rains flooded the Pelican River. 

“It was all compressed, and it hit the lakes the same time—bringing those levels up,” said Henry. 

High water was a topic of discussion at the spring Pelican property group meeting, May 20. The board sent a letter to Otter Tail County, requesting a “no wake” zone. Association president Berndt was impressed with the speed of the response, as the Otter Tail Sheriff and County Board approved the No Wake by May 24. “The association really appreciated it,” said Berndt.

Some speculation that the recent dam modifications—at Fish Lake, Lizzie, and Prairie—were having an impact on upstream levels at Pelican, Melissa, Detroit, and on.

Quite the opposite, said Henry. The “rock arch rapids” modifications are actually wider and less restrictive than with the old dams. “We were definitely moving a lot water through Fish Lake and Lizzie—which is quite big and very wide,” said Henry. Interestingly, the Lizzie rapids are flowing steadily at a rate of about three feet deep, across a 100-foot-wide span, he noted. The Prairie Lake modification isn’t as expansive, but the water is flowing freely. 

“We don’t feel the free flowing sections of the river is a problem…we didn’t feel there were any restrictions,” said Henry. 

The Pelican River overflowed its banks during the Memorial Day downpour, late Monday. Note the Ace Hardware delivery truck at the rear entrance of Strand Hardware, as the river flows across the blacktop parking lot. Photo by Sara Brosowske, Pelican Rapids Press

That suggests good news for the pending removal of the Pelican city and Elizabeth dams. If the upstream experience, at Lizzie, for example, is an indicator—the river restoration project should maintain a natural flow of the Pelican River—from Detroit Lakes all the way to Fergus Falls. 

A more likely trouble spot is the Highway 59 culvert at Dunvilla and Lake Lizzie. 

“We’ve had some discussions with MnDOT about the culvert into Lizzie,” said Berndt. “All the water is running through one culvert under Highway 59. 

There are scientific models for the Pelican Lake-Lizzie flow—but they are now somewhat dated, with a 2022 flow that was 20 percent higher, said Henry. 

“If we’re looking to the future, if we get flows another 20 percent higher than today, I wouldn’t be surprised if the state didnt consider the Lizzie culvert…that’s probably the spot that needs to be addressed first,” said Henry. 

RELATED: WATER AND WEATHER: Wettest spring in 142 years of monitoring area flood waters