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In 2009, the Red River crested above 40 feet, held at bay by more than a million sandbags. Fargo, a community with 105,000 residents at the time, was saved by an army of 100,000 volunteers from all around the region.
“Every year we’re fighting floods,” Berndt said. “The upside of that is that we’ve gotten quite good at it. The bad side is, one of these years we’re not going to be so lucky.”
Fargo was sick of sandbagging, sky-high flood insurance rates and the dampening effect of constant flood threats to their efforts to lure new businesses to town. The community about five years ago turned to the Army Corps of Engineers for a more permanent fix.
Part of that fix includes building a ring levee around the tiny North Dakota towns of Oxbow, Bakke and Hickson. The communities sit south of Fargo and, like the Askegaard farm, they sit in the middle of the area that would be flooded by the proposed dam. Crews were gearing up to break ground on the levee this summer.
The $71 million project will, among other things, rebuild a section of Oxbow’s golf course to make room for the ring dike. The Minnesota DNR fired off a letter in March warning that the project would violate state law if it forges ahead before the state finishes its environmental review, expected in the fall.
Supporters countered that the dike is a separate project, unrelated to the proposed dam. Opponents argue that the communities already have flood control structures; the ring dike would only be necessary if the region became a staging area for Fargo’s floodwaters.
“You don’t start a project before the environmental review is complete,” said attorney Jerry Von Korff, who has filed a federal lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of residents in the proposed flood staging areas in Richland County, North Dakota, and Wilkin County in Minnesota.
The scope and cost of the project have ballooned over the years, and opponents question whether this latest supersized diversion project would have been necessary if Fargo — one of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the nation — weren’t expanding out into land that used to be flood plain with projects that include a shopping mall.
“There’s nobody in their right mind who’d just say, ‘Let’s let Fargo get flooded,’ ” Von Korff said. “If Fargo had just seized on the $400 million project, or the $600 million project or the $800 million project, we’d probably be halfway through the construction.”
Instead, he said, they were lured by economic development. “If you have this land, and someone tells you they’re going to put up this big wall so you can put up a shopping mall, that’s going to be a really attractive idea,” Von Korff said.
Supporters say the project as it stands is the best way to help as many people as possible while hurting as few as possible. The flooded farmers will be compensated, and the region’s hub will be protected.
“We’ve worked very hard for the last five years to minimize the effect on the folks upstream and treat everybody fairly,” Berndt said. “Unfortunately, you can’t make everybody happy.”
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008