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Why Minnesota should support, not obstruct, Fargo-Moorhead’s permanent flood protection

Photo by Nick Sortland
The Red River in Fargo

The Red River Diversion is a project designed by the Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul office, funded by Congress and signed off by the Obama administration to allow the Fargo metropolitan area permanent flood protection from the increasingly unpredictable Red River.

This project replicates the solution Canada developed 50 years ago to protect Winnipeg from destructive regional flooding along the same river. Their Red River Floodway (diversion) was constructed in the 1960s after a disastrous flood event in 1950.

With the climate changing, the floods on this northward-flowing river have become more extreme and unpredictable, with wildly varying winter precipitation amounts and rapid spring thaws becoming ever more common.

The Red River Diversion will distribute a portion of the river around Fargo, lowering the flooded river’s height while passing through Fargo-Moorhead, protecting the cities on both sides from floods, as well as greatly walling off Fargo’s future sprawl.

However, early last month the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources denied a permit application for the project.

Where is Fargo’s economy and culture today?

Fargo has been in the midst of a cultural and economic boom for the past 15 years, and it wasn’t started by oil.

In 2001, Microsoft acquired Great Plains software from then entrepreneur Doug Burgum, now moderate governor-elect, and a North Dakota downtowns enthusiast. Fargo’s Microsoft campus has grown to become the company’s second largest outside of the Seattle metro. Since then, multiple new software companies have sprouted up including the mobile app designers and coders for businesses such as MPR, US Bank, and Bobcat.

The city now boasts high rankings in start-up activity, attracts twice the amount of people to its TEDx events compared to Minneapolis, and holds the national record for the number of attendants at the weekly entrepreneurial event, “1 Million Cups.”

Fargo’s new bike-share service, Great Rides, set a national record by usage for individual bikes, and even edged out the total number of riders compared to Seattle’s bike-share service during its first year at 143,000 riders for Fargo in 2015, and 142,000 for Seattle’s first year in 2014.

A new “Misfit” mindset has opened up the city to tinkerers, doers and eccentrics, which has been galvanized by new techies, a large amount of young people and an entrepreneurial scene that’s turning this buzz into new businesses, festivals and lifestyles.

In 2016, the National Arbor Day Foundation has named Fargo a “Tree City USA” for the 39th year. The City of Fargo plants 1,000 to 3,000 new trees per year, with historic Fargo neighborhoods boasting some of the largest remaining sections of American-Elm-lined streets in the United States.

How has Fargo area development already responded to a limit in space for future development?

The recent growth has already become denser than it was a decade ago, and in many instances, new housing is closer together than suburban development in the Twin Cities area.

This can be observed in the newest sections of Fargo and West Fargo, where lot sizes are already being minimized as a result of lacking supply, in response to the limited amount of developable land remaining within the proposed diversion path.

The Minnesota DNR’s refusal of permanent flood protection goes against climate-change science.

Many more studies related to climate change on the Red River have come from the Canadian side, where climate-change science is much more accepted. Their studies show a climate with increasingly wild swings in extreme temperatures and precipitation amounts, which will no doubt affect the Red River, as listed in the study “Sensitivity of the Red River Basin Flood Protection System to Climate Variability and Change” (Simonovic).

Fargo, in the Red River Valley, has already experienced several St. Patrick’s Day parades with temperatures well into the 60s and 70s, something unthinkable before this past decade. Should those springs have had a larger snowpack to melt, the outcome would have been disastrous.

What happens if we do nothing?

Winnipeg, Manitoba, and most recently Grand Forks, North Dakota, know all too well what would happen in Fargo without permanent flood protection. Grand Forks was hit the worst by the Flood of 1997. Almost entirely flooded, the downtown then burned. When temporary measures were not enough, it led to the evacuation of 50,000 people, and caused $3.5 billion worth of damage to cities on both the North Dakota and Minnesota sides of the river.

Winnipeg suffered worse flooding in 1950 after its temporary flood protection measures failed, which led to 100,000 people evacuating — the largest mass evacuation of people in the countries history at the time.

Its response was to build a diversion called the Red River Floodway, which has existed since the 1960s on the same river, unencumbered by border politics.

Winnipeg’s diversion has since been awarded as a National Historic Site of Canada in 2000, and after its completion has been expanded upon and is seen as one of the best flood protection methods in Canada.

Photo by Nick Sortland
Downtown Fargo

Why is Minnesota saying no, when this same strategy has been used for decades on the Red River in Canada?

The Minnesota DNR’s statement that the diversion is unlawful is only based on the fact the DNR would not approve a permit for a portion of the diversion resembling a dam. Its decision of no permit was not based primarily on environmental concerns, but on the economic impacts on the upstream Minnesota side of the diversion, which did not include the economic saving of Moorhead from floodwaters.

That decision was made by either an extreme oversight to the life safety and economic dangers Moorhead faces from the river, or people in the DNR think that the small elevation difference of 4 feet will keep the Minnesota side at bay from risk of major flooding, where Minnesota has already spent hundreds of millions fortifying since the flood of 2009. The Minnesota DNR’s latest decision did not take into account the latest FEMA flood map showing 800 more houses on the Minnesota side at risk to new flooding predictions, bringing to question: What methods did the DNR use to make its decision?

This logic that Minnesota is economically immune from Fargo flooding-out also ignores the fact that over 60 percent of Moorhead residents work in Fargo; it casts aside any concern for the thousands of Minnesotans who choose to go to school at North Dakota State University; and it discounts the safety of the regional hospitals in Fargo that many in the northern and western part of Greater Minnesota rely on for care and emergencies.

Did the Minnesota DNR’s conclusion contain any of the severe economic, health-care, or higher-education-related impacts a Fargo flood would have on Minnesotans? The Fargo-Moorhead metro is intricately connected, and nowhere near as divided by state lines as Minnesota’s higher-ups would seem to want. The Moorhead mayor and City Council are still in full support of the diversion, with one council member, Nancy Otto, referring to her state’s leadership, saying, “We feel abandoned by you.”

The Red River Floodway in Canada, which the diversion would mimic, was named a National Historic Site due to the “… efficacy of its design and its capacity to handle floodwaters in excess of its design flood function, has had, and will continue to have a socio-economic impact of both provincial and national significance,” according to Canada’s Historic Places.

In direct contrast, the Minnesota DNR has lately said in the Forum newspaper that it included in its objection, “The project does not meet the requirement to be reasonable, practical, protect public safety and promote public welfare.”

How can the Minnesota DNR and Canada disagree so widely on a project style that has demonstrated to be a success, has performed above expectations, and greatly helped in protecting the lives and economic activity of Winnipeg?

A thought experiment:

Let us imagine a scenario where a Minnesota community along the Wisconsin border needed increased flood protection; however, a Wisconsin governmental agency worked against FEMA recommendations, the Army Corps of Engineers, and emerging climate-change science to disallow Minnesota to jointly build its flood-protection plans.

The Minnesota community in Wisconsin’s eyes would have too much land inside of the flood protection area, where in reality, the Army Corps of Engineers put its unbiased path to protect as many communities and households as possible in one sweep.

The Wisconsin group, after working against other governmental agencies, says that current temporary practices should be sufficient, and offers no plan or compromise for other permanent flood protection. However, the climate continues to destabilize, and in the next decade the Minnesota community of a quarter million floods badly.

Who is to be responsible for not just the dollar amount in damages, but the human lives lost due to state politics — losses that could have been prevented with the plan that they already had?

This scenario isn’t hypothetical, it’s real. But the state questionably hindering flood protection isn’t Wisconsin, it’s Minnesota. 

What is it like to live under the threat of a Red River flood?

Imagine military vehicles driving down the street outside your bedroom window every night for weeks. There are urgent reports that the regional hospitals are evacuating. The water from the faucet is tainted with a strange taste. The possibility that you’ll be forced to abandon the city in the middle of the night should the temporary fortifications fail becomes ever more a reality.

That is not a story from a far-away military conflict, but was the life Fargo-Moorhead residents lived during the flood season of 2009. For a few weeks we did not know what would happen when we woke up.

Where would we be sent to assist with the flood fortifications? Would we be making sandbags? Throwing sandbags in a line to strengthen a dike? Or would we be clamoring together our possessions if one of the many temporary dikes failed?

The importance of federal power over states

The Army Corps of Engineers has federal power above Minnesota, and has stated it will continue the project to protect the lives of over 200,000 people who have been promised permanent flood protection by Congress and the Obama administration.

Gov. Mark Dayton, however, has repeatedly threatened the project, has alluded to pulling funding or swaying higher-ups to stop the flood protection plan, and recently mentioned the possibility of a state lawsuit against the project. It remains unclear whether that would be possible with federal funding having been passed, or if Minnesota will find another way to halt the process. One of the reasons the federal government has the ability to overrule states is to protect all U.S. citizens from forms of local bias.

This storyline and risk to real people and communities is tragically set to continue if Minnesota is successful in its intent to obstruct Fargo-Moorhead’s permanent flood solution.

Nick Sortland is a graduate of North Dakota State University’s master of architecture program. He became interested in urban design and planning while living through downtown Fargo’s urban revival. Nick grew up in the Twin Cities, has since lived in Brooklyn and Winnipeg, before now residing in Seattle. He enjoys discussing the urban realm and is interested in how societal ideals influence the built environment.


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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Steve Hoffman on 11/28/2016 - 01:11 pm.

    No down side for anyone?

    Interesting how the article touts all the benefits for Fargo-Moorhead, but neglects to mention the square miles of farmland that will be sacrificed to periodic flooding under this proposal. Are these farms, and their owners, so unimportant as that?

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 11/29/2016 - 09:33 am.

      Not only are the people of MN

      Supposed to pick up the flood waters for Fargo, but we have been forced to accept the polluted air from ND’s coal electrical plants and the transportation of ND’s volatile oil by dubious pipelines, rail cars and trucks. Send the flood water to ND farmland

      • Submitted by Nick Sortland on 11/29/2016 - 11:36 am.

        Point of article proven

        These comments are continuing to ignore Moorhead, the 40,000 sized Minnesota side of the Red River which remains at serious risk to flooding, and Minnesotans continue to dismiss it. Instead the enemy here is percieved as ND with anything it does, rather than the shared threat of the Red River. And the importance of farmland over a major population center? Where would these farmers go for food, supplies, or emergency medical care when those are all flooded by a lack of perminant protection? Where would their kids go to college with the local institutions flooded out? Can we please look at this objectively?

        • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 11/29/2016 - 03:24 pm.

          How much does it help Moorhead financially?

          How much does it help Fargo financially? How much iis ND paying for the project? How much is MN payIng for the project? How much farmland is ND losing? MN? How much is every farmer in MN losing cropland being paid per acre? ND? How will MN farmers continue to make the same money farming with less cropland? Let’s look at it objectively! As an aside, what is ND going to do with the wasteland in western ND once the natural gas is burned off and oil reserves go away? Look for more US govt aid?

  2. Submitted by trana rogne on 11/29/2016 - 05:20 pm.

    FM Diversion

    Minnesota DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr made some things very clear last week. In a Forum editorial followed by a radio interview, Commissioner Landwehr eviscerated many of the well-worn talking points Fargo’s Diversion gang has been peddling the past several years.
    The DNR has never found Fargo’s diversion plan the “best plan,” nor has the DNR determined other alternatives were insufficient. In fact, says Landwehr, the DNR was prevented from considering worthwhile alternatives in its earlier Environmental Impact Statement because Fargo limited its project purpose to protecting undeveloped flood plain. The DNR was thus constrained by law to only evaluate plans that served Fargo’s defined purpose. That purpose, to protect 55,000 acres of undeveloped flood plain for development, is the very reason the Diversion plan violates Minnesota law and cannot be permitted.
    The decision to deny Fargo’s Diversion Authority a permit to dam the Red River was not a discretionary decision by Governor Dayton because “he didn’t like the project”. The decision was Commissioner Landwehr’s and the law with respect to high hazard dams left him no choice. Because it was mandated by law, this decision cannot be “reconsidered.”
    Minnesota DNR has never told Fargo to “go sandbag.” Fargo’s Diversion Authority declined to consider any alternative that did not include protecting huge swaths of undeveloped flood plain. In its permit application Fargo only gave the DNR two options, permit the project with its unlawful purpose or deny the project. Now, having forced an all or nothing decision, Fargo’s leaders want to make the DNR the bad guy. The blame for this failure should fall squarely on Fargo’s Diversion promoters who arrogantly refused to offer up a plan B or any reasonable alternative.
    There are other alternatives that will give Fargo’s developed areas greater flood protection. The internal protection Moorhead has completed and Fargo has nearly completed already provides permanent flood protection for developed areas well above the 100 year flood level. In fact, the FM area is now permanently protected to nearly 44 feet, 3 feet above the greatest flood ever recorded. Given another flood of 2009, very few “emergency measures” would be required. The key words are “developed areas.” Fargo’s leaders have never offered up a “plan B” because simply protecting “developed areas” has never been their intent.
    Commissioner Landwehr’s radio interviewer, a Forum employee and Diversion Authority surrogate, having miserably failed to land a single punch for the Diversion, petulantly made the following observation: “You sound like you are repeating the talking points from opponents of the Diversion south of Fargo Moorhead – because that exactly outlines what people who wanted to stop the diversion are saying.” Exactly, we came to the same conclusions, not because of any collusion, but because of an honest examination of both the facts and of Fargo’s agenda. We have been diligently reporting these facts here in the Daily News every Thursday, and we are very happy to be in
    the good company of Commissioner Landwehr and the Minnesota DNR.

    Defending Richland Wilkin
    JPA Editorial Team
    October 27, 2016

  3. Submitted by Sara Cool on 01/12/2017 - 06:16 am.

    Fargo is not in minnesota

    Since fargo is not in minnesota, let the north dakotans worry about it .

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