Farmland, prairie will pay heavy price for saving Fargo from floods

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2014 - 9:54 AM

A $1.8 billion floodwater diversion project would inundate nearby farms.

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Mark Askegaard, with daughter Beth, is an organic farmer on land that would take on floodwater from Fargo-Moorhead.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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– Four generations of Mark Askegaard’s family have farmed the land along the Red River here.

Now that land, and Askegaard’s livelihood as an organic farmer, is under threat.

Congress just approved plans for a massive $1.8 billion flood control project that would protect homes and businesses around fast-growing Fargo and Moorhead from the river’s frequent floods. But that protection comes at a cost. Instead of flooding urban areas, plans would reroute floodwater into surrounding countryside, right onto Askegaard’s homestead.

Askegaard, whose great-grandfather had the sense to build on high ground, could find his fields submerged under as much as 8 feet of water for days or weeks at a time. He and other farmers would be compensated, but the water would still be full of chemicals and runoff from farms upriver that could contaminate his fields and ruin his organic farming certification.

“Everything I’ve been trying to achieve for the last 15 to 20 years … would be all thrown out the window,” said Askegaard, who grows organic flax and soybeans for markets that include the Twin Cities. “It’s drastically changed our plans for the future. We don’t know what to do.”

The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion would be a colossal undertaking: a 36-mile ditch around Fargo, coupled with a flood control dam across the Red River. In the event of a severe flood threat, the project would divert floodwaters from the Red River and its five tributaries away from developed areas and into miles of North Dakota and Minnesota farmland and prairie.

Supporters say the diversion is the only way to protect the region from an inevitable catastrophic flood that could cost lives and billions of dollars. Opponents say the diversion’s main purpose is to allow fast-growing Fargo to expand into the flood plains that hem the city in on three sides, and they question why century-old farms should be sacrificed for the sake of urban sprawl.

In May, Congress authorized $846 million in federal support for the project, although the actual money will come in later legislation. North Dakota will foot 90 percent of the remaining cost of the project — about $900 million — while Minnesota would cover 10 percent of the nonfederal cost, or about $100 million.

But first, Minnesota is taking a hard look at one key part of the plan. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is in the midst of an environmental impact study of the proposed dam. If the DNR concludes that costs — to the environment, economy and lives upstream — are too high, it might not grant approval to build on the part of the river under Minnesota’s control.

The review leaves Minnesota in the odd position of evaluating what could greatly benefit a flood-prone city in North Dakota, but at great cost to some of its own citizens.

“The dam on the Red, that’s a big deal,” said Randall Doneen, who heads the DNR’s environmental review operations. “If there’s any alternative that wouldn’t have a dam on the Red, we’d be really interested.”

Those alternatives include flood retention projects upriver — which means south of Fargo-Moorhead, since the Red River flows north into Canada — that would store the floodwater in distributed storage areas before they could reach the cities.

But the region’s pancake-flat topography makes upstream retention difficult. There are few places that would make good temporary reservoirs for all that water, and they would need a number of those staging areas, which might only push the misery upriver, flooding even more farmers than the ones who already find themselves on the wrong side of the planned dam.

“Our project offers permanent protection,” said Brett Coleman, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has already signed off on its own environmental evaluation of the project. “There’d be over 200,000 North Dakotans benefited from this project.”

An annual thing

There’s no question that Fargo needs flood protection. The Red River has flooded 49 of the past 110 years. In fact, it flooded every year for almost two straight decades, from 1993 to 2011, and then again in 2013. The floods are a constant threat and disruption in a community that is a regional hub for two states.

“We’ve been dangerously close to losing flood fights in Fargo in the past,” said Keith Berndt, administrator for Cass County, which includes the city of Fargo. The estimate if they did lose to a 100-year flood: $10 billion and a number of lost lives, he said. “We can’t afford that kind of catastrophic damage.”

Flood fights are a way of life in Fargo, which sits 4 feet lower than its neighbors on the Minnesota side of the river. Spring runoff from the south flows north into areas still locked in a deep freeze. Ice dams can push the water over the riverbanks to spill across the prairie. When that happens, schools close, businesses give workers the day off, and everyone fills sandbags as the icy water inches closer to homes and buildings.

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