The advertising flyer by a group of mostly rural residents opposed to a $2 billion Red River diversion project.

Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

$1.8 billion Fargo flood ditch plan advancing

  • Article by: BILL McAULIFFE
  • Star Tribune
  • December 6, 2011 - 12:14 AM

A $1.8 billion flood-diversion ditch around Fargo is expected to get key federal approval before the year is out, but along the banks of the Red River of the North, one man's flood relief is another's woe.

The 36-mile ditch -- wider and deeper than most of the region's rivers -- is designed to let flood-weary Fargo and Moorhead breathe easy even in the face of a 1-percent-chance flood, which would bring about as much water as the record 2009 flood. Beyond that, it will all but eliminate what has become a nearly annual springtime ritual -- multimillion-dollar sandbagging efforts by volunteers and construction of temporary clay dikes by public workers -- while accommodating miles of dry-weather recreational trails and picnic areas.

Flood fighting in 2009 cost Fargo and Moorhead about $50 million, but helped avoid major property damage. The Army Corps of Engineers has determined that losing the fight against a 500-year-flood could cause more than $10 billion in damage. The diversion would take 6.7 feet off the crest of a 500-year flood in the cities, said Aaron Snyder, project management supervisor for the corps. It would knock about 12 feet off a 100-year flood crest, which is about a foot higher than what the cities saw in 2009.

The proposal is now with the corps' chief engineer, whose signature would send it to Congress for final approval and funding.

Some in the Red River Valley oppose the plan, saying the cost is too high. And they're not talking just about the dollars.

"The bigger cost is that it destroys communities," said Jon Evert, a Clay County commissioner, citing the planned removal of about 1,000 homes in three North Dakota cities and surrounding countryside to create a storage area for as much as 9 feet of water in a major flood. "We will have lost 130 years of history. So far, the saddest thing is that it's really created a division between the rural and metropolitan areas."

The current plan has given rise to some organized opposition. Some farmers in North Dakota's Pleasant Township are exploring a move to secede from Cass County, which includes Fargo, and join the county to the south. Organizers, whose farms would be inundated because they also lie in a water-retention area that would be used to limit floodwater flowing downstream, argue that county commissioners didn't represent their interests in planning for the diversion. Many voted to approve a half-cent sales tax in Cass County to pay for flood mitigation.

Two years ago, the Army Corps weighed a number of mitigation plans on both the Minnesota and North Dakota sides of the Red River, which is the border between the two states. They initially settled on a 35,000 cubic-feet-per-second diversion in North Dakota. But they backed off when models showed the effect on 4,500 homes downstream from where the diversion re-entered the Red, all the way to the Canadian border. (The Red River flows north.)

The current proposal made the diversion channel smaller, to ease the flooding downstream. But it compensates for that by designating about 10 square miles of land upstream from Fargo and Moorhead as a retention area to delay floodwater from entering the diversion in the first place. In effect, it would convert that much farmland into reservoirs in wet seasons. The Corps would buy out owners of homes in Oxbow, N.D., Hickson, N.D., and Bakke, N.D., and farmsteads surrounding them, and tear or burn down their homes. Evert's home city, Comstock, Minn., would be protected with a ring dike.

"We have to store the water somewhere," Snyder said. "If we aren't storing it upstream, it's in Fargo and Moorhead."

Snyder added that under Corps policies, while the first diversion plan would have flooded more houses, it wouldn't have flooded them enough to trigger buyouts by the agency. Under the new plan, the upstream retention would flood fewer homes but so completely that the Corps would be required to buy out and relocate the owners. It has added about $261 million to the project cost.

History, money and politics

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said those who have criticized the Fargo-Moorhead plan for protecting urban development at the expense of agriculture don't appreciate that state and local governments on both sides of the river have already spent millions of dollars moving hundreds of houses out of flood-prone areas, building permanent levees, improving sewer systems and creating other flood protection measures. Fargo, the largest city in North Dakota, has successfully fought off floods in recent years with temporary measures while cities up and down the river -- notably Breckenridge-Wahpeton and East Grand Forks-Grand Forks -- have gotten by with new diversions and state-of-the-art permanent levee systems.

"We've waited and we didn't protest," he said. "Do we have to fail to get permanent flood protection for Fargo?"

Flood mitigation has been part of the civic conversation in Fargo and Moorhead for decades. The current plan is the result of three years of study, even though the process was authorized by Congress 37 years ago. If the Army Corps chief approves the plan this month, it will then be up to Congress to first give it the go-ahead, then provide the money. All four U.S. senators from North Dakota and Minnesota, both governors, North Dakota's congressman, Rep. Rick Berg, and Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson support the project. But in the current political and economic climate, a $1.8 billion expense, even broken into smaller pieces over time, could face opposition.

The federal share of the project is $802 million. The other billion is being divided based on the expected benefits. For now, that would be met by $200 million from the city of Fargo's sales tax, $200 million from the Cass County sales tax, $400 million from the state of North Dakota and as much as $150 million from the state of Minnesota.

But that might not be the end of it. In the face of increasing annual rain and snow in the region, Red River Valley officials are looking for ways to reduce peak flows on all the region's rivers by 20 percent, noted Lance Yohe executive director of the Red River Basin Commission. Wetland retention and other measures to hold water back could cost up to $4 billion over the next 50 years, he said.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

© 2018 Star Tribune