| At home in Shakopee, at Christmas time, Larry Samstad enjoys slowing down a bit, but his thoughts continue to dwell on matters hydrological.
Chaska, Minnesota, during the floods of April 1965. Larry Samstad, District engineer, conducted the first really scientific studies of flooding on the Minnesota River. (Flood photos courtesy of the Chaska Historical Society.)
A view of Oak and First streets in Chaska, April 10, 1965, by Werner Studio of Chaska.
Shades of the '50s! Note the Civil Defense emergency squad truck and the pickup behind it. Photo again by Werner Studio of Chaska.
Carver, Minnesota, all dammed up and no place to go — April 1965.
Boiling Springs, in Savage, the source of Eagle Creek. (Photo: Terry Schwalbe.)
A long career devoted to the District's interests
Larry Samstad, civil engineer, is nearing 50 years of work on behalf of the District
Lawrence E. (Larry) Samstad has served the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District from its inception in 1960 — as consulting engineer for 42 years, administrator for four years, and for the last five years as Scott County manager. In all that time, Samstad has acted as a steady advocate both for nature and for man.
Put it this way: the degrees in civil engineering that Samstad earned from the University of Minnesota in the 1950s put him in a profession dedicated to wrestling in a ring where man and nature meet. A place where, in the early days, water resource organizations, both federal and local, were dominated by bureaucrats. And so were places where most engineers, if not angels, feared to tread.
According to Gordie Kopacek, president of ITCO Allied Engineering, who has known Samstad since the 1950s, it’s not only Samstad’s engineering excellence that lifts him above the crowd, it’s that “he’s not afraid to tackle a hard job and not afraid of fighting for a cause when he needs to.”
How it was at the beginning
At the beginning, Samstad appeared on the watershed district scene like a figure in an old film noir. Imagine a darkened room, a single bulb dangling from the ceiling. Imagine the first group of District managers huddled together. Imagine their reluctance and their doubt at the appearance of this man of science. Why should we hire you as our engineer? they asked. Why do you charge so much?
That day, in October 1960, and that place, Westerberg’s Lumber in Savage, are long gone. But since his hiring, one month later, Samstad has worked tirelessly for the District, on and off the clock, to further its mission as both protector of water resources and promoter of trade on the river.
From the beginning, Samstad has contributed an engineer’s perspective to the management of water resources and a local citizen’s point of view. He has investigated and managed water resource issues in a rational, scientific, and fiscally conservative way.
Highlights of Samstad's career
The highlights of Samstad’s long career with the District neatly sum up the history of the District itself:
the district's right to be
- Acquiring land for the Army Corps of Engineers’ (COE’s) 9-foot navigable channel.
- Conducting the first scientific studies on flooding on the Lower Minnesota River.
- Orchestrating plans for dredge disposal sites.
- Protecting from development such rare natural resources as Eagle Creek and Boiling Springs.
- Designing boat ramps on the Lower Minnesota that offer citizens safe access to the river.
Samstad’s very first project for the District was dramatic. By terms of its mission, the District acted as sponsor for the Corps of Engineers: it would acquire land in the Lower Minnesota, and the COE would develop a 9-foot channel for barge traffic. In 1961, a landowner at the east end of Long Meadow Lake, below the airport, sued the District, for he didn’t want to sell his land or acknowledge the jurisdiction of this upstart agency; the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the in 1964 District prevailed. (For details of this episode, see our 2003 online newsletter.)
Legal challenge behind, Samstad got river properties assessed all along the 14.7 mile stretch of the Lower Minnesota (between Savage and the confluence with the Mississippi) and a local levy instituted. Three sharp turns in the river between the confluence and mile 4.0, plus one at the Savage railroad bridge, made barge traffic at the time nearly impossible. The total cost for acquiring the easements came to $165,000 — compared to the $4 million spent at roughly the same time for the excavation of just one mile of the Mississippi north of Upper St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis (and the building of the lock). The COE’s work made possible the creation of Ft. Snelling State Park (with land the District gave the Department of Natural Resources; again, you can read more about this issue on our web site).
100 year floods
Then, in 1965, came the great Minnesota River flood. And Samstad, despite the doubts of the District’s attorney,
applied for and won one of the first grants issued in Minnesota by the Department of Interior’s new Water Resources Research office. By the time Samstad’s study came out, the 1969 flood had occurred, and so the study included it. The upshot of his work was that all representations of the flood as a 100-year flood were useless. The U.S. Weather Bureau had kept statistics not since 1865, after all — which would have established a true 100-year comparison — but only since the 1930s. Thus, Samstad concluded, the data for the 1965 flood were of no predictive value. It would be far safer and truer simply to call the 1965 event “the flood of record.” (The Weather Bureau was renamed the U.S. Weather Service in 1967, under the Environmental Science Services Administration, or ESSA, which in 1970 became NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)
Some years later, about 1990, Samstad analyzed rainfall data published by the Weather Service but collected from 1960 through 1988 by Future Farmers of America (FFA) and 4H groups. In fact, the data showed that in 18 years there had been 59 so-called 100-year floods. Nobody, in short, knew what a 100-year flood was. To gauge such a “superflood” accurately, Samstad concluded, one must “nail down three variables — time, intensity, and rainfall quantity,” and certainly no one had done so to date.
when dredging was a drag
If you know anything about the District, you know that since its inception it has been vexed trying to dispose of dredge materials — the natural byproducts of the COE’s dredging operations. To cite Samstad, the District has been playing “a hockey game that’s gone overtime and just won’t end.” Finding a permanent home for dredge materials began about 1970, says Samstad, but “about every time we made a proposal for a site, they’d say no.” The District was rebuffed by many partners, that is, including cities, state and federal agencies, and American Indian tribes too. Two sites were approved, on Cargill and NSP property, but permission was later revoked when the land was designated wetlands by new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
Finally, the Distract has acquired an 18 acre site, says the District’s administrator, Terry Schwalbe, from Cargill to handle dredge materials from upstream — “our first permanent dredge site.” The site is being prepared this spring and should be operational this summer. The District now needs just one smaller site to handle materials from the 494 river crossing to the confluence of the rivers at Ft. Snelling. This site, too, like the Cargill site, must be a safe depository that will not aggravate human groups or natural resources.
eagle creek easements & boiling springs
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Samstad worked with the District to procure 200-foot easements along Eagle Creek, one of the last remaining trout streams in the metro, and its source at Boiling Springs. “We put in a huge effort so no one could destroy these rare resources by developing the land,” he testifies.
boat ramps ramping up
The last major project that Samstad cites is his work on establishing and designing five boat ramps for the Lower Minnesota — at Cedar and Lyndale avenues as well as in Carver, Chaska, and Shakopee. The last of these structures, to be named “Sam’s Landing” after Samstad, typifies his approach: against the advice of some, he designed the ramps so they’d angle downstream with the current, not straight out, and so allow boaters to mount and dismount their boats safely and easily. Before these projects, funded in part by the District, boaters would put in where they could, in unmarked and not always reassuring areas.
Where does the District go now?
Onetime manager Bill Jaeger, who worked for 50 years with Kraus-Anderson and represented Ramsey and Hennepin counties on the board for 20 years, remembers his work on the board as a time of amiable productivity. Unlike some engineers, he testifies, Samstad was “not egotistical but, rather, very practical. When someone came to the board with a problem, Larry and the rest of us would not play the mind games that some government units do. We’d listen, politely, and give people a straight answer.”
Such straight talk and ready listening will continue to serve the District well as Samstad and colleagues on the board look forward to a challenging future. To cap his own richly accomplished career, Samstad wants to continue working on several major issues:
- The need to “better recognize what’s polluting the river,” direct sources such as wastewater treatment plants as well as runoff from farm fields and untreated septic systems.
- The need for “continuing strong local, incremental efforts to effect large changes in the river.” In other words, it can’t be up to Washington, or the federal bureaucracy, to dictate to our area what we need and what we can do about our own challenges.
- The continuing need to “educate our citizens to care.” Starting in grade school, Samstad suggests, we’ll use language that everyone can understand. If we have to use cartoons, we’ll use cartoons. We’ll reach kids, teens, and adults too using whatever methods we must use to capture hearts and minds.
- The need to develop more, and more effective, watershed districts. Both the Minnesota River and the state need more, and more vigilant, districts like ours to be good stewards of our water resources at the same time they enable responsible commerce.
What in fact does the future hold? He may, this spring, seek nomination for a second term as manager. Beyond that, Samstad stresses that he’s no soothsayer and does not know the future. He simply holds to the strong conviction that man’s better nature can be trusted.
# # #