Fueled by runoff from a winter of heavy snow, water is swiftly rising behind the Clausen Springs Dam. And Kathryn's 55 citizens are frustrated that nothing has been done to repair or replace the damaged dam that threatens to break and inundate this blink-and-you-miss-it community, about 60 miles southwest of the state's biggest city of Fargo.
"We're just an itty-bitty town and we don't carry any clout," Mayor Dave Majerus said. "If that dam was above Fargo, there would be some concern and definitely something would get done."
Flood worries extend far beyond Fargo and other North Dakota and Minnesota communities along the north-flowing Red River. Heavy, wet snow has caused widespread flooding for other parts of North Dakota, and several communities such as Linton, Lisbon, LaMoure and Jamestown are being fortified with temporary levees and sandbags to beat back the rising water. In Minto, about 16 homes in the community of 300 are threatened by floodwaters, and residents are frantically using sump pumps to stay dry.
Few of those places, though, are as worried as Kathryn.
Stray cats are sometimes more likely to be seen than residents in the town, which boasts little more than a bar, a post office and a church. Though the community has seen better times it's still no less important than any other, Majerus said.
The problem with the dam near Kathryn is that it was built before state safety standards were in place. The Clausen Springs Dam, which is tucked within rare wooded rolling hills in the area, is fed by a creek that collects runoff from 100 square miles of mostly flat farmland in southeast North Dakota.
The earthen dam is about 50 feet high and about 700 feet long and holds back a lake about the size of 50 football fields. It was built in 1967 for fishing and recreation
- not for flood control, said Harlan Opdahl, a Barnes County commissioner.
Kathryn residents were evacuated for a few days last April after flooding began eroding the dam's spillway a few miles from town. Trucks hauled in clay and rocks to fortify the earthen spillway and North Dakota National Guard soldiers in helicopters dropped more than 100 one-ton sandbags to help shore it up.
The little town was spared extensive flood damage but it led some to wonder whether it was worth spending big money protect it. State and local governments eventually raised $3 million "by pulling a few strings" to replace the dam but the work may come too late, the mayor said.
"We got the money but all that's been done is talk," Majerus said. "I guess that's the way bureaucracy works."
State officials say it took time to scrape together money for work and no one believed the area would be hit with flooding two consecutive years. The town, founded in 1900, never had a flood threat until last year.
"It's rare to have flooding there one year, let alone back to back," said Sando, of the North Dakota Water Commission. "There was no way of predicting it could happen again."