Nearly a half-billion dollars has been spent on flood protection in the Red River Valley since the devastating flood of 1997, but very little of it has been invested in the cities that now need it most -- Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.

The twin towns, which largely held off the Red 12 years ago, have received little aid and, consequently, didn't have much to spend on long-term flood protection over the past decade compared with the cities that needed the money most in 1997.

Now, as the cities of Breckenridge, Minn.; Wahpeton, N.D.; Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., enter the 2009 flood season with new flood walls, reinforced levees and a newfound confidence, Fargo and Moorhead teeter on the brink of disaster.

A crest of at least 42 feet -- nearly 2 feet above the record -- is projected for the cities in the next couple of days.

"They're breathing easily, and we're somewhere close to where they were in '97," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said.

Most of the state and federal money -- $417 million -- spent since 1997 went to Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to build a series of permanent levees and flood walls designed to protect the cities from a crest of up to 60 feet, more than 5 feet higher than the record crest of 1997.

More than $65 million was spent in Breckenridge and Wahpeton, where the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers meet to form the Red, to shore up defenses and make sure the cities never again endure the double crest and soaking they got 12 years ago.

In comparison, Walaker said Fargo and Moorhead, which have been working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a long-term plan for permanent protection, have spent more than $10 million over the past decade to install new pump stations and remove more than 150 homes from the most flood-prone neighborhoods.

That work already has made this spring's flood fight a bit easier, he said.

"We would not be surviving right now if we hadn't done that," Walaker said Thursday.

Still, with the river approaching a record crest, it may not be nearly enough.

"We've been working at this for 30 years," a frustrated Walaker said as the National Weather Service upped its projections for a record crest. "It's time to get out of the dark ages."

How the projects are working

While Fargo and Moorhead sandbag and sweat, the towns hardest hit in 1997 appear to be in relatively good shape.

The Red crested Tuesday at 17.5 feet in Breckenridge-Wahpeton, almost 2 feet below the 1997 record.

Officials there credit the flood control projects with keeping them dry.

"Permanent flood protection on the ground means everything right now," said Darcie Huwe, finance director for the city of Wahpeton.

Stan Thurlow, economic development director for Breckenridge, said that city alone bought up more than 125 houses and moved them from harm's way. It also spent nearly $10 million in state and federal aid to cut a 3.5-mile diversion ditch northeast of town to divert water from the Otter Tail River from the city.

"The ability to pull that much water off before it gets [downtown] makes just a huge difference," Thurlow said.

Downstream in the Forks, officials are quietly confident.

Major work in the cities included removing more than 1,000 homes and businesses from the worst of the flooded neighborhoods, building two diversion channels and more than 30 miles of permanent levees and flood walls, and installing 23 pumping stations.

East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss said the projects, completed in 2007, worked so well that when the Red hit 48.6 feet in 2006, the fifth-highest crest in the history of the cities, "we didn't throw a sandbag."

The Red reached a record 54.5 feet in the Forks in 1997, and is projected to crest early next week at 50 to 53 feet.

"We feel very comfortable," Stauss said this week.

Mark Davidson, a spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, said Thursday that the investment up and down the valley since 1997 has prevented nearly $300 million in damages. And that doesn't include the damage already inflicted this spring.

"A lot of work is done," said Craig Evans, a project manager for the Corps. "But we're not finished." Richard Meryhew • 613-673-4425