Three thousand sandbags circle Ardis Sandstrom’s house on Lake Shamineau, each one an attempt to stop the encroaching water of the lake.
“Eight years we’ve been filling sandbags and just watching the water march toward us.”
It was supposed to be a retirement home, with 14 feet of a sand beach in front for the kids and grandkids to gather and play, while Ardis and her husband Terry celebrated their golden years.
“But the last few years have been more of a battle than a celebration,” Ardis said as she stood outside her house on a chilly afternoon in November.
That sandy beach is now gone, and the Sandstroms have plans in place to move on from their dream of a retirement home if need be.
The reason? Excessive flooding on Lake Shamineau over the past few years.
Nine houses sit on Cantleberry Road, where the Sandstroms live on the northeast side of the lake. Of those nine, only three homeowners remain. The rest of the houses are underwater.
“And our place will be the next to go,” Ardis said.
In an effort to continue living in their retirement home for as long as possible, the Sandstroms have five sump pumps continuously running on their property to stop the water. Don’t even ask what that does to their electric bill.
The couple has a new routine — wake up every day and check the sump pumps to make sure they’re still functional.
Ardis went through the house and emptied out all the cabinets that sit 3 feet high or lower so she doesn’t lose any personal items if the water comes inside.
A constant moving beast is how Ardis described it, always having to make sure the pumps are working and the sandbags stay in place.
Down on the southeast side of the lake, Bob and Cheryl Koll understand the struggle.
They’ve called Lake Shamineau home for 50 years but have seen drastic changes over the last decade, including the loss of 70 feet of beach on their property.
“The first 10, 20 years we’ve been here, the lake operated like most lakes do,” Bob Koll said during a phone interview in November. “(The water levels) would be up and higher in the spring, and then they’d come up a little bit in the summer, and then they’d go back down in the fall.”
But for about the last 15 years, the water hasn’t been going back down, Koll said. And in the last nine years, he estimates the lake’s surface has risen by about 3 feet.
Lake Shamineau has no outlet, meaning water levels depend on precipitation and evaporation to stay at a consistent level.
Abnormally high amounts of precipitation over the last few years, paired with Augusts that haven’t produced the hot, dry conditions needed for evaporation, are contributing to the lake’s rising waters, according to Mark Anderson, area hydrologist with the Little Falls Department of Natural Resources.
Koll also attributes the changes to blocked culverts from road construction and other watershed blockages, including several beaver dams.
The Kolls finally paid their house off about four years ago, but are now looking at some significant expenses going forward.
“The major thing that we’ve done lately is we put a big trench in along the end of our patio — our basement area — and have it all set up to be able to pump,” he said. “We can pump now, but it’s not a constant pumping, thankfully yet. But if it rises more, we’ll need to have that thing going all the time.”
Koll said he and his wife have always taken the time to work on their shoreline and keep up the appearance of their property. Now, they’re spending what he described as an inordinate amount of time keeping the water away from the house. Right now it’s lapping the grass around the property, which is 30-40 feet from the house. He knows it will likely creep closer to the house, but luckily the Kolls have a solid plan to fall back, with higher ground behind their house. However, it likely won’t be cheap.
“We’d have to sacrifice our basement, of course — which is finished — and take things out of there and then add on to our house off to one of the sides or two of the sides of the house,” he said. “But that would affect the septic tank, all sorts of adjustments.”
Across the lake on the northwest side, Pat Held is out tens of thousands of dollars as he strives to save not only his house, but the place he has called home for 28 years and the place where his wife Carolyn took her final breaths.
The life insurance he received from her passing is gone now, thanks to the costly repairs needed.
Last summer, the road near Held’s house flooded, with the water then creeping into his basement. At the same time, the lake surged, bringing water into the other side of his house, too.
“So I had water from rain and water from the lake coming into the lower level of my house. And of course that was a disaster, so we had to tear out all the carpet and redo everything and put in a basement drainage system,” he said. “And at the same time I built a concrete dike across my patio because we had sandbags up there after that and it wasn’t doing a very effective job of keeping the water out.”
The cost? About $30,000. Tack on another $10,000 to repair a retaining wall that was pushing into his basement from ice jacking.
“Because the lake is so high and ground water is right up there too, it freezes in the winter, and the ice gets about 3 feet deep,” Held said. “And what happens is it puts pressure on the ground and then it heaves the ground up, and it’s terrible.”
Held now has an aeration system going on his property to keep ice from forming, along with eight sump pumps operating around the clock, but those are just more continuous expenses.
He used to have 13 feet of walkway leading out to his dock, but that’s now underwater, too, forcing him last summer to wade through water to get out to his dock.
“That was a rather unique experience,” Held said.
Lake improvement district
The residents of Lake Shamineau aren’t just trying to protect their personal properties from the flooding, though. They’re working together to find a long-term solution for all, fighting back against Mother Nature to recoup the peace of mind and tranquil way of life they once knew on the lake.
Residents began working to establish the Lake Shamineau Lake Improvement District in 2013 to combat the rising waters, among other issues on the lake like aquatic invasive species and pollution. Morrison County officially approved the LID’s creation in 2015.
Sandstrom and Koll are both board members of the LID, which is working closely with county, DNR and state government officials to develop a long-term solution for the flooding.
Thanks to a $65,000 flood reduction grant from the DNR, the LID has some funds to begin the engineering and design work for a submersible pump to be placed on the east side of the lake.
“It would be underground piping, and then there would be a discharge point, and they’re going to create an infiltration basin,” Anderson said. “So basically it’ll pump water to that infiltration basin and then let it percolate into the groundwater, and groundwater movement is away from Shamineau … so the thinking is that if they pump into this infiltration basin, then groundwater will move it away eventually to the Crow Wing River.”
Koll said they found an area with about 50-80 feet of mostly gravel sand less than a quarter-mile away from the lake that will work well as the infiltration basin. The hope is to lower the lake’s water level at least a couple feet.
“We’re not quite there on a confidence level yet on the engineering,” Anderson said, “because there’s a bunch of modeling that needs to be done because when you add that much water to the groundwater, you want to make sure that you’re not going to negatively impact other people by raising the groundwater level.”
Now, the LID is working to get easements from property owners to move the water to the infiltration basin and working to secure the roughly $2.2 million needed for the pump project. That price tag could include up to $6,000 of assessments a piece for property owners around the lake, causing further financial strain on those who have already paid so much to save their homes as best they can.
Residents have their hopes set on a state bonding bill to help with the cost as well, but that funding wouldn’t come until much later next year, and Sandstrom said they hoped to get going on the pump as soon as the ground thaws in the spring.
Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he and Rep. Ron Kresha, R-Little Falls, are working to put funding for the pumping in the state’s 2020 bonding bill. Every other year, the state typically passes a significant bonding bill with the capital investment committee considering more than $4 billion worth of requests throughout the state, Gazelka explained. Usually about $1 billion of projects get funded through the bill, which he said normally isn’t finished until the last week of session in mid- to late-May.
In the meantime, Gazelka is exploring other avenues of funding.
“We’ve also been reaching out to the governor’s office,” he said. “Are there other solutions that we can explore that can solve it, too? What the final solution will be, I don’t know.”
When he first reached out to Gov. Tim Walz’s office about disaster relief money, Gazelka said the Lake Shamineau issue was not on the governor’s radar, but staffers are now digging into it more.
“Disasters happen around the state, and typically the legislative branch and the governor try to rally around people of Minnesota, wherever that disaster might take place — something that was outside of the control of the people that live there, and so this certainly would fit that,” Gazelka said. “So I wouldn’t expect opposition from anybody, it’s just the idea of trying to find the solution that fits.”
Gazelka said he hopes a solution can be found before the upcoming legislative session.
Quality of life on the lake
For many lakeside residents, the natural world of animals and plants, partnered with sandy beaches and a quiet, relaxing atmosphere contribute to the choice of water-front property.
“It’s the peace. It’s the quiet,” Sandstrom said. “At any given time, there’s a deer or a duck or a goose, or there’s turkeys, there’s fox. One day we had a lynx walk through here.”
After deciding to move up north from Andover, the Sandstroms researched lakes in the area and found Lake Shamineau to be a nice-sized lake with clear water, free from an abundance of fast-moving boats.
“It’s more of a fishing lake, although there’s a lot of people who enjoy water sports,” Ardis Sandstrom said. “It’s just been a really nice lake to be on. And just doing our research, we went, ‘That’s where we want to be.’”
For the Kolls, finding a permanent place on the lake to raise their family was a dream after Bob grew up living in the city with weekend camping and fishing excursions on the lakes.
“It’s a rural kind of life,” he said. “We’ve always liked the water. We like to fish, we like to boat, sail. And it’s just what we always wanted to do.”
And for Held, it was a promise he made while proposing to his wife many years ago. He taught in the Staples-Motley School District, while Carolyn taught in Little Falls. Their deal was to find a place on a lake between the two locations, ultimately leading to Lake Shamineau.
“I still enjoy living here,” he said, “but not as much as I used to, for more than one reason.”
Held said the lake’s flooding has lessened the quality of life he moved to Shamineau for.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
When it starts to rain in the middle of the night in the summer, Held wakes up and worries about how much rain will come and if his pumps will continue working.
“It’s very often I wake up in the middle of the night now and I think about what’s going to happen next spring, what’s going to happen this winter,” he said. “It has lessened the quality of life on the lake quite a bit. It’s been something I would not want to have to go through.”
His next worry is how much snow comes this winter to contribute to the flooding.
Held doesn’t leave the house very often in fear the sump pumps will stop working and worries about what the flooding has done to the value of his house, should he ever have to leave and put it up for sale.
“You always have issues when you own a home. There’s always repairs and things like that, but not to the extent that this has gone on,” he said.
The natural world has suffered from the flooding, too.
At one point, Sandstrom estimates 10 pairs of loons used to nest and hatch babies on the lakes. This year, she saw two.
“Their nesting grounds are underwater,” she explained.
Koll described a similar situation, leading him to build a platform for the loons to nest.
“The water was getting so high that they had no traction for their nests in the typical bulrushes and areas they liked,” he said, noting they would rely more on the ground, which could also be dangerous when fishing season starts and anglers come around, sometimes with dogs.
Trees are dying around the lake from the abundance of water, too.
“It’s just sad to see,” Koll said.
And water quality is another concern. Koll said several cabins and homes on the lake have septic tanks underwater that can’t be pumped out, leading owners to abandon ship. In some places, propane tanks have been lodged loose and are floating in the lake.
Why it matters
One thing homeowners on Lake Shamineau want others to know is it’s not just about them.
“An issue like this, it affects the economy, it affects the environment,” Sandstrom said, explaining how most of the lake is under a “no wake zone” right now, meaning the very center of the lake is the only place anglers and boaters can go with any speed.
“They have to go at a crawl,” she added. “And so that discourages people from coming into the area, and if they don’t come into the area, that affects your restaurants, it affects retail, it affects everything.”
Koll and Hled pointed out Lake Shamineau doesn’t just belong to the property owners around it either. It has more than one public access and ultimately belongs to the state, Koll said, meaning the state should invest in its care.
“We have people coming and going all the time using our lake,” he said. “And so they should be very concerned about the water quality of the lake.”
“We’re in a community,” Held added. “A community of people in the area. And if one group of us is hurting because of this, we all should be hurting.”
Sandstrom hopes others become aware of the problems facing the Lake Shamineau property owners and write to their representatives seeking support because, as Held noted, “we’re all in this life together.”
“And if we don’t help people who are hurting,” he said, “then what kind of people are we?”
Note: This story was updated Dec. 24 to correctly state the submersible pump will be placed on the east side of the lake.