WAUBAY, S.D. (AP) — Standing along a South Dakota waterfront shored up with boulders, Kevin Jens peered at the placid lake and reminisced about a road that led to a popular place to fish and picnic nearby but now lies underwater after being swallowed up by rising waters.
“There’s an island under there,” the mayor of Waubay said, breaking into an uncomfortable laugh and pointing to a grove of dead trees jutting from the water about a mile away.
At a time when much of the Upper Midwest wrestled with the worst drought in decades, residents in this northeastern South Dakota community that sits among a chain of glacial lakes are raising roads, draining fields, moving their homes or leaving town. The dry weather has stabilized lakes, but homeowners in the town of about 550 are still dealing with a wet cycle that started in the early 1990s and has slowly gobbled up houses and land.
Waubay has seen its population drop by more than 100 since 2000, and residents fear losing the town that was founded as a railroad stop 130 years ago.
“What really makes them worry is where is our tax base and where is our revenue going to come from in the future,” Jens said.
Waubay native Rick Breske said residents are “trying hard to do the best we can to deal with the situation.”
“I give a lot of credit to the people who aren’t picking up and leaving,” he said.
Waubay is in the middle of what is believed to be a closed basin, with no natural outlet. The 10 major bodies of water in the chain are: Bitter Lake, Blue Dog Lake, Enemy Swim Lake, Hillebrands Lake, Minnewasta Lake, Pickerel Lake, Rush Lake, Spring Lake, Swan Pond and Waubay Lake.
The water has no place to go other than from one body to the next. Bitter Lake, south of Waubay, has grown from about 5 to 32 square miles in the last two decades. Waubay Lake, north of the town, has ballooned from about 8 to 27 square miles.
On a recent ride through Waubay, Jens called attention to a row of vacant, boarded-up modular homes surrounded by weeds. The 16 units were built for low-income Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe members, but residents have scattered to other communities and there are no plans to revive the development.
“Nobody has lived in here for well over a year now,” said the mayor, who also grew up in the town. “It’s depressing. It was beautiful down here. Kids used to play behind these houses, in nice green, cut grass.”
Breske estimates the flooding has cost him as much as $90,000, from building berms and moving rock to money lost on land. He eventually moved his house to higher ground on the west side of town.
“A lot of people took buyouts. We decided to move,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of money remodeling over the years and like our house.”
Jens made water his No. 1 issue when he ran for mayor in 2000, but not because residents were worried about too much of it. He promised better water quality and infrastructure, and delivered with a water and sewer project soon after being elected.
The area was facing a wet cycle, but a stretch of dry weather in the early- to mid-2000s had most residents thinking the worst was over.
“We let our guard down,” Jens said.
Minor flooding hit in 2009 after a winter of heavy snow, but the major water struggles started in 2010. The main lift station has since flooded and one of the town’s two motels has gone out of business. Houses have moved or been demolished or placed on stilts, and thousands of acres of farm and pasture land are underwater.
U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Dan Driscoll said there was no way to predict the abrupt changes in the last decade. He compares the chain flooding to that of Devils Lake, N.D., though Waubay’s is on a smaller scale. Devils Lake has grown from about 46,230 surface acres to more than 200,000 acres and has risen more than 30 feet in the last 20 years.
Devils Lake residents have been dealing with a steady catastrophe for two decades, and Waubay has been more of a roller-coaster ride with the worst coming in the last few years. And while Devils Lake has received more than $1 billion from federal, state and local agencies to store water, build up roads and dikes and add a second outlet, Waubay has gotten less than $150,000 in state and federal help.
“As far as what the future holds, obviously none of us really have that answer,” said Driscoll who’s based in South Dakota. “As far as advice, I guess that’s not really my business, but if I lived alongside that area I certainly wouldn’t count on (the water) going down.”
About 20 Waubay homes remain below the federally established minimum flood plain level of 1,810 feet above sea level and will be bought out or moved. Census figures show the estimated median house value in Waubay in 2009 was $46,259, compared to $126,200 statewide.
The lift station serving the southern part of town sits 25 feet below lake level, next to a road that has been raised 7 feet. The station has been reinforced with concrete so it won’t become buoyant and pop out of the ground. Huge boulders surround the facility to ward off wind and waves.
The high water has brought some prosperity, with many seasonal residents from Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska spending money to flood-proof their cabin property and much of the construction work going to local firms.
Tourists also have not stayed away. Gary Peterson, owner of the town’s only remaining hotel, said business is good. Outdoor enthusiasts make up half of his occupancy.
The fishing has never been better.
“Bitter Lake, for example, was just a big slough for many, many years,” Peterson said. “Now it is a huge lake with walleyes in it now and the fishing is wonderful.”
The lakes including Bitter Lake, which has dropped a foot, have been stabilized because of the dry weather. But that’s little solace for many residents. Breske, for one, said he won’t be fooled again.
“They all feel really good because it’s a dry cycle and the water is going down,” he said. “We’ve still got plenty of water. And it will rise again.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.