Falling behind schedule: Wet roads causing big problems

ABERDEEN, S.D. -- When Daryl Lematta started working at the Dickey County, N.D., highway shop in 1980, he didn't think things could get much drier. As much as people in the area clamored for a rain shower during that year's drought, they would we...

ABERDEEN, S.D. -- When Daryl Lematta started working at the Dickey County, N.D., highway shop in 1980, he didn't think things could get much drier.

As much as people in the area clamored for a rain shower during that year's drought, they would welcome a week without rain this year, especially those who work to maintain roads. Nearly three decades after starting his job, Lematta can't imagine a year much wetter than the last one.

"Nothing soaks in because it's already soaked," Lematta said, referring to rain pooling on drenched land.

After a wet fall in 2008, many counties in the area -- especially in North Dakota -- had more snowfall than usual. That, combined with regular spring rains, led to flooding as spring set in. A cool summer and more rain have left road crews not only considerably behind schedule but also concerned about more problems come spring.

Even a normal winter's snowfall will mean flooding next year, said Jan Weismantel, Brown County highway superintendent.


Knowing that, she said, the department will be as prepared as it can be. That means having barricades and flags ready to close roads in a timely fashion, something she said didn't happen this year.

The county is geographically hindered because water from surrounding counties to the east, west and north runs into Brown, she said. That means more snow than usual in Dickey County or a heavy rain in Marshall County could lead to high water in Brown even if it doesn't get much moisture, she said.

Fall is the time of year when highway departments are supposed to be able to base work and graveling of roads, said Chuck Fromelt, Day County highway superintendent. That hasn't happened, though, because of the rain. In a normal year, he said, the county has to repair 15 to 20 blowouts in gravel roads. This year, that total has been a couple of hundred.

"We're getting two days a week in of productive work" because of the rain, he said.

Three Day County roads have gone under water recently, Fromelt said.

"I expect a few more if it keeps raining," he said. "We've got so many that are close. The only thing that saves us in a flood year is (that) we raised over 300 roads from '94 to 2000 or we'd be in really bad shape," Fromelt said.

Weismantel said one farmer in the area told her he has had 16 inches of rain since Sept. 1. She said she knows there are farmers who can't get to their crops in the field because of standing water and has heard that one farmer was sandbagging to protect his home, though she couldn't confirm it.

Sandy Dinger, who works in the Marshall County highway shop, said the Amherst area, not far from Claremont, is very wet. So is the Kidder area, she said.


"People who have never had a problem with water in their basements are experiencing it just because of the high groundwater levels," Dinger said.

Conditions are worse now than they were in spring, she said. There's a lot of landlocked water that didn't dry up because summer was not hot and dry.

Some roads were built up only to go under water again, she said.

Charlie Glynn, Emergency Management director in Dickey County, agreed that the cool summer didn't give roads a chance to dry out.

"Well, we never had summer if you think about it. What did we have -- one day of 90 (degrees)? Or two days of 90?" he said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has helped, Glynn said. Just shy of $1.4 million was approved for county and township road and bridge projects in Dickey County as the result of damage caused by spring flooding. But, he said, many North Dakota counties are far from finalizing their FEMA numbers.

Brown County got about $250,000 to help repair roads and bridges. That does not include money sent to townships. And, Weismantel said, the county has another option to help pay for some repair costs.

Money is available from the federal Emergency Repair mitigation plan; Brown County's funding is not yet known, but more than a dozen projects could qualify, she said.


FEMA money is given to the county up front to pay for repairs. Emergency Repair money is paid after projects are done as it is becomes available, sometimes over a number of years.

Some Brown County townships have learned they are not getting as much money as they were once told. In some cases, they're getting less than half, county and other officials have said at recent Brown County Commission meetings.

The problem, said Gary Vetter, county planning and zoning director, is that the wrong right of way distances were used when FEMA figured how much it would cost to rebuild township roads. Sometimes, he said, FEMA used 50-foot rights of way common along county roads, as opposed to 33-foot rights of way that apply to most township roads.

When it was determined the extra land wasn't needed, the amount of disaster repair money promised to townships was reduced, he said.

Township officials have said the news of less money has been discouraging; many had plans to use the larger amounts they were told they would receive.

Marshall County got $83,000 in FEMA money, Dinger said. Day County got $45,000, Fromelt said.

The totals are helpful but won't cover too many repair projects, officials say, especially when so many jobs need to be done.

Each county has some roads closed, though those thoroughfares might be cared for by townships. The impassable roads make things a little more difficult for farmers trying to get to fields and harvest to market, Russell said.


Often in fall, Dinger said, roads are so dry they get washboard-like. When that's the case 0.2 inch of rain or so helps with blading, she said. This year, though, a fraction of an inch of rain seems like 3 inches or more, Fromelt said.

Fromelt said Day County didn't lay its first asphalt patch until after July 4 this year. That's a good month later than usual and the latest that he can remember in his 16 years on the job. Weismantel said that Brown County didn't chip seal any roads and paved only four miles or so of road.

It's still so wet that Lematta and Weismantel said that a hard freeze would probably be good for roads, making them hard instead of mushy.

"But I think our worst year is yet to come," Fromelt said. "Next year."

Other highway officials agree that might be the case. Weismantel said there's only so much highway crews have control over.

"Mother Nature determines what we do," she said.

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