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Mouse River Park is on its way back

“We’re not dead, just broken,” Mouse River Park caretaker Darrell Iverson said last week about conditions at the Park.

5/02/12 (Wed)

Cafe demolition . . . The Mouse River Park Cafe was torn down
April 19th as the Park prepares for a new camping season. The cafe
was damaged beyond repair in last summer's Mouse River Flood,
although a few items were salvaged before the building was
taken down. The Country Mouse Bar, also destroyed by floodwaters,
was demolished last fall.  However, the Park's auditorium building
was saved and may be the site of Park activities for campers
and visitors during the 2012 summer season.


By Caroline Downs

“We’re not dead, just broken,” Mouse River Park caretaker Darrell Iverson said last week about conditions at the Park.

As springtime thoughts turn to camping and other activities at the Park, plenty of people are working to fix the broken parts, including Iverson and Mouse River Park Board president Tom Witteman of Mohall.

“It’s not going to be like it was,” Witteman said, “but I’m optimistic things are going to start turning around.”

The Park took the brunt of Mouse River floodwaters last spring and summer, beginning with high water conditions that prompted voluntary evacuations during the months of April and May and full evacuation by Father’s Day. The Park’s dike held unprecedented amounts of water at bay, until a deluge of rain across the Souris Basin on both sides of the international border sent water cascading through the river.

By June 21st, sandbagging efforts to bolster the dike were called off. Flood control gates were opened on both ends to relieve pressure on the dike, which allowed the Park to backfill with up to 10 feet of river water.

Every structure in the Park was damaged. Clean-up efforts started late last summer and continued through the fall, including demolition of the Country Mouse Bar.

“It’s hard to think it’s already been a year since we started talking about flooding at Mouse River Park,” said Renville County Emergency Manager Kristy Titus.

Two weeks ago, mild temperatures allowed one crew to tear down the Mouse River Park Cafe. Another contractor began repairing the electrical pedestals throughout the Park’s campgrounds.

“I’ve been getting calls since January,” Iverson said, “especially from people who’ve been [coming] here for years. The property owners down here are starting to stir around, cleaning up, and I’ve got some roll-offs down here now.”

The Park Board and Renville County Commissioners are stirring around, too, after spending the winter hashing over FEMA funds and requirements, flood control plans for the entire river valley, and plans to rehabilitate the Park.

“It’s looking up,” said Witteman. “There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes. Things are starting to come together and our plans are getting a little bit clearer.”

Witteman and Iverson point to various success stories. Two clean-up days were held last fall, with most major debris removed.

“The road access is good,” Witteman said, adding that the county commissioners coordinated those repairs with the townships involved. “The west entrance is open and that’s all been temporarily repaired.”

The Park’s existing dike and flood control structures were not damaged by the river last summer, and the gates are back in place. “They’re running Lake Darling high and everybody is pretty cautious,” said Witteman. “There’s no navigation on the river and probably won’t be this year. The Park is running a little bit high, too.”

The Park’s shop building has been cleaned and repaired and the Gazebo came through the flood in relatively fine shape, after volunteers applied elbow grease to clean the muck last summer.

“That facility is available, and a new Park office will be moved in sometimes next month,” Witteman said. “That will be a FEMA trailer, so Darrell [Iverson] will have his office back!”

Campground is a priority
One of the top priorities right now involves getting the campsites functional again. “As far as the campground goes, all those facilities will be up and running,” said Witteman. “All the RV pedestals will be changed out. That was a big project approved by the county commissioners and the Park Board.”

Costs for replacing the pedestals and associated work have been estimated at $50,000, with FEMA funds expected to cover the majority of those expenses.

Witteman and Iverson agree camping will return in stages to the Park, although Witteman believes all the sites will be ready sometime in June and Iverson thinks it will take longer.

“There are over a hundred pedestals to replace and it takes time,” Witteman said. “But the materials have been ordered. We should be able to get a portion of the south campground open by Memorial Day weekend.”

Some campsites could be off-limits to visitors this summer as stretches of mud-covered ground are rehabilitated. “We want to work some of that ground along the river and get the grass growing again,” said Witteman.

“The grass is starting to come,” Iverson added. “It won’t be plush grass, but it’ll come. It’s a matter of time.”

Campers who want to enjoy the Park can rest assured the bathhouses will be functional. According to Witteman, the bathhouse at the south campground has been gutted and refurbished, with a few new plumbing fixtures still to be installed once they arrive.

The bathhouse by the auditorium, a concrete block building, sustained less damage from the flood and was cleaned last fall. “We’ve put in new partitions and new vanity tops,” Witteman said.

Iverson noted electricity is available at the Park, but is not connected to many buildings yet. “Most places still have to have a certified electrician do that,” he said.

Iverson noted electricity is available at the Park, but is not connected to many buildings yet. “Most places still have to have a certified electrician do that,” he said.

Preliminary plans
for bar and cafe

The old bar and cafe are both gone, but the Park Board is considering various ideas to house those establishments at the Park. “We’re looking at some preliminary plans in the auditorium to refurbish that into a bar set-up with restrooms on the inside,” Witteman said. “We’re getting estimates on it. It’s pretty important to have some sort of a gathering place.”

A cafe will not be established along with the bar. “First District Health Unit did not favor a restaurant license for the auditorium,” said Witteman, adding that mobile concessions may be available. “We do have interest from people in doing some sort of temporary set-up.”

Discussions about building a multi-use cafe with a meeting area have taken place, but any new construction at the Park will fall under the current regulations for the National Flood Insurance program. “The county commissioners will have to determine if they want to do that,” Witteman said.

Qualifying for flood insurance under the national program can be difficult, especially because the Park’s dike was downgraded from its 100-year flood protection status to 65-year protection status shortly after Hurricane Katrina’s impact forced the federal government to reevaluate diking systems across the nation.

According to Witteman, Renville County officials were not aware of the status change until they started coordinating efforts with FEMA. “We’re still working through all of this,” Witteman said.

Ackerman-Estvold Engineering of Minot recently proposed new flood protection measures for the Park, with cost estimates just below $20 million. “The Mouse River Park project is lumped in with the entire Mouse River Valley project,” said Witteman.

The whole system is expected to cost about $820 million, and the project has entered a three-to-five year feasibility and acquisition stage, according to Witteman. “The dike here would be substantially larger, but it would involve some private property and some [Upper Souris National Wildlife] refuge property,” he said. “They would have to negotiate property buyouts or swaps.”

He described the flood protection plans as “fluid and always changing,” and said the Park needed to move ahead. “For now, we can’t wait five years to make a decision,” he said.

He noted that FEMA representatives, Renville County Commissioners and Titus were still working through the project approval and funding processes, with Titus seeking other grant opportunities to fund Park recovery projects as well. “There’s also some talk of private investors putting up a facility being kicked around,” Witteman said.

Witteman isn’t waiting five years to rebuild his own cabin. “It took a little over six feet of water,” he said, “but it’s repairable. We gutted it out and I’ll fix it up when I have time, but mine won’t have wheels on it.”

A rebuilding summer
Park visitors may notice work projects taking place during the summer. Iverson hosted a representative from the state forestry service last Thursday who evaluated the condition of trees at the Park and recommended several hardwoods and evergreens be replaced.

“There’s a lot of the trees we planted in the last 10 to 12 years or so that have to be removed,” Iverson said. “About 30 to 40 percent of those. I was hoping it wouldn’t be the way it was. Anything covered with water was pretty much history.”

Witteman said research into tree farm and other grants is taking place to cover the cost of replacing trees. “A lot of those trees were starting to get pretty nice,” he said.

Another project could involve construction on the west access road for the Park, which is temporarily repaired and open to traffic now. “They’re going to rebuild it, but the Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of that project,” Iverson said. “I believe that’s scheduled for this summer, but we’re not sure about when yet.”

Witteman praised Renville County officials for their cooperation on Mouse River Park recovery efforts so far. He noted many of the meetings about the Park held during the past few months addressed procedural topics related to flood recovery and funding options. In the meantime, individuals and groups have approached him about volunteering to help with Park recovery projects.

“We’ll have another Park Board meeting in early May now, and set some goals and dates for clean-up,” he said.

He continued, “Hopefully, the momentum takes over and people get in there and work at cleaning up their property. This is definitely going to be a rebuilding summer.”