White Bear Lake, the direst of mudholes within vivid memory, is now rising so high that it’s threatening to stream out through overflow pipes.
In fact, a county commissioner claims it already has. That can’t be confirmed, but officials overseeing the once-receding lake agree that, after a climb of several feet, it’s moving up fast amid all the rain and isn’t that far away from bubbling over.
The lake’s major beach, closed for eight years, is due to reopen in two weeks for at least shoreline wading. Docks once made to stretch hundreds of feet to reach water have been submerged. Marina slips that long stood empty above weedy sand now have big boats bobbing alongside them.
“I’m very excited about the fact that Mother Nature has helped us along here,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Victoria Reinhardt. “I’ve already taken the grandkids to the lake a couple of times.”
Legally, the matter has hardly gone away. After presiding over a weekslong trial that began in March, a Ramsey County district judge this summer is contemplating how to come down on the issue of who’s to blame for the lake’s long retreat.
Lead attorney Katie Crosby Lehmann, representing lakeshore owners and others accusing the state of standing by while a crisis developed, spoke of being unruffled by the lake’s comeback because the case was about a historical pattern of severe ebbs and flows “running decades into the future.”
But Bill Foussard, whose downtown White Bear Lake hotel and restaurant depend on summer tourists, is giddy even though he cringed when recent rainstorms forced him to close his rooftop eatery.
“The lake’s come up, I bet, five feet from its low point,” he said, “It’s incredible. It looks good. It’s exciting to have it back. When docks are underwater, it tells you something.”
Anne Kane, the city’s development director, arrived in town six years ago and lives five houses from the lake. “I came when it was at a very low level,” she said, “and I was accustomed on my walks to seeing 75 to 80 yards of lawn before you finally reached water. Boy, is it beautiful now.”
Daron Close opened a lakeshore restaurant called Acqua — Italian for water — at around that same time. There wasn’t much water to see. Now, he said, “people are raising their docks, it keeps raining, the entire water issue has subsided. … I grew up here and the marina has never looked as cool.”
When to open beach?
Issues persist over when to declare the lake’s big Ramsey County beach open for swimming and not just splashing about near shore. “I grew up here,” said Foussard, “and even when the water was down the beach was open.”
He complained that Ramsey County’s decision to wait until the lake reached 924 feet — a point it’s nearing — was unreasonable, given its significance for an entire community. “For us it’s always been, ‘See you at the beach,’ ” he said.
Reinhardt said the concern is safety, given the steep drop-off in the lake just off shore. “Even at the best of times, it has never been a real deep beach,” she said. “It’s a beach for the kids to play around in, more than for swimming.”
Heavy rains this spring have continued a long recovery that has the lake at a level unmatched in the past 11 years.
A few days ago, Washington County Commissioner Fran Miron told his colleagues during their weekly meeting that White Bear Lake is now so far back from the depths that it’s discharging from culverts meant to keep it from flooding people’s property.
State and watershed officials say they can’t say that hasn’t happened, but that the official water level isn’t quite high enough to reach outflow pipes.
One thing’s for sure: If the lake starts outflowing again, questions will arise as to whether, as one local puts it, those culverts should be “stuffed with concrete” rather than fool with Mother Nature and lose that water.