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Peterson plan would set aside huge area to avoid Fargo-Moorhead flooding

Karen Thoreson and Clarence Sitter are shown arranging sandbags around a house that borders the flooding Red River in Fargo, N.D., in March 2009.
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Karen Thoreson and Clarence Sitter are shown arranging sandbags around a house that borders the flooding Red River in Fargo, N.D., in March 2009.

WASHINGTON — If a $1.4 billion plan to reduce the risk of catastrophic floods in Fargo and Moorhead is successful, diverting 35,000 cubic feet of the Red River per second, it beggars a second question — where does all that diverted water go?

It's a question of particular concern for communities upstream of the proposed diversionary channel, where local officials worry that the excess water will increase the frequency and severity of spring floods beyond their capacity to fight.


Separate from the diversion plan is what proponents say may be a solution. Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, is in the early stages of drafting a measure to set aside 1 million acre-feet of land (an acre of water wide, a foot deep) north of Fargo-Moorhead as a flood-retention zone.

Rep. Collin Peterson
REUTERS/Mike Theiler
Rep. Collin Peterson

The provision is targeted for the 2012 Farm Bill, a quadrennial reauthorization measure that essentially sets the nation's agriculture policies and priorities for the next four years. Well, perhaps "targeted" isn't a strong enough word.

"I'm going to put it in," Peterson said.

Simple as that.

"That's one thing the chairman can do. I've talked to my committee about it — they know and they're supportive," he said.

Diversion concerns downstream
In 1950, a flood on the Red River turned much of Winnipeg into a lake. Dikes meant to keep the floodwaters out of the city failed, 70,000 people were evacuated and damage was estimated at up to $1 billion.

To prevent that from happening again, the Red River Floodway was constructed around Winnipeg, moving more than 90,000 cubic feet of water per second around the city at peak flood times. It has been so transformative that it was recently dubbed one of the engineering wonders of the world.

Fargo-Moorhead's floodway is designed to mimic the Winnipeg diversion. And it is, right down to the opposition from upstream and downstream residents concerned about increased flooding as a result of all that excess water now being funneled their way.

Downstream of Fargo, in communities like Grand Forks, Perley and Hendrum, officials say they're concerned they aren't getting adequate input into the diversion.

The Army Corps of Engineers' comment period for the project ended on Aug. 9, six days after the latest flood modeling study was completed. Additional data on downstream affects for the area of river, including Grand Forks, is due to come out in the first week of September.

Leaders in Grand Forks, which was flooded by the Red River in 1997, have called for additional study on the effects of study. City Engineer Al Grasser told the Grand Forks Herald he worries that flooding they can fight now will become even more severe.

"What we're concerned about is if a 100-year event looks more like the 200-year event, we're going to get more water," Glasser said in an interview with the Herald. "We're looking more at the practical application rather than the technical application of the 100-year to 200-year flood."

In a letter to the Corps, Ann Manley, mayor of the 100-person town of Perley, said long-time residents of her community one mile from the river "don't want a buy-out" but are tired of fighting floods.

"They can't imagine that the community of Fargo and Moorhead would deliberately cause us more problems. [Perley residents'] property values are decreasing and the chance of their children or grandchildren taking over their homes in the event of their death is never going to happen."

Hendrum Mayor Curt Johannsen was even more blunt.

"Residents downstream from Fargo/Moorhead are not against Fargo/Moorhead receiving flood protection; however, we all need flood protection in the Red River Valley," he wrote.

"We all are tired of fighting floods! Why can't we work together and find a solution that will benefit the entire Red River Valley and not one localized area? It is not neighborly nor is morally right to protect one area and make flooding that much worse for others."

Diversion and retention
Peterson said the next six months will be spent getting the language ready for all of the different types of things the bill will authorize. He'll also be talking to local officials and landowners about their concerns in an effort to craft a comprehensive solution with local buy-in.

"That's the work I'm doing now, all the kind of behind-the-scenes stuff," he said.

The exact location of the retention field is undetermined, but is likely to spread over a wide area, with water to be stored in existing lakes, wetlands and some farm fields. He estimates possibly hundreds of small projects will need to be completed to make it happen, hence the big pricetag.

All told, this retention project will cost an estimated $1 billion over 10 years, with the federal government picking up half the cost.

And while the diversion itself has many legislative hurdles it must yet clear before federal funds are appropriated, the path to authorizing this retention solution is somewhat more straightforward.

Peterson is a lead author the Farm Bill, and he'll insert the measure (possibly as original language). If it's removed in the Senate for some reason, Peterson would likely be the lead House negotiator of any compromise. Hence, the clarity of his statement.

"It's going to be in there," he said.

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Comments (1)

A minor correction to an otherwise excellent article: The reporter notes that Rep. Peterson's proposal would set aside 1 million acre feet NORTH of Fargo-Moorhead for upstream flood storage. The Red River flows north, to Winnipeg, so this storage would have to be south of the F-M Metro to be any help to it.