Restraining the Red River: Local officials take flood fight to Washington

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken look on as Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney, wearing a vest with the words "Evacuation is not Option" emblazoned, on Monday describes flood preparation efforts in Fargo and Moorhead.
MinnPost photo by Derek Wallbank
Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken look on as Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney on Monday describes flood preparation efforts in Fargo and Moorhead.

WASHINGTON — About $193 million worth of taxpayer dollars is spent every year in the Fargo-Moorhead area on fighting, responding to and cleaning up after floods on the Red River — and those are for fights they’ve won.

A loss, defined as the icy waters of March and April breaching the makeshift sandbag levees and flooding the cities, would cost about $8 billion to clean up.

But the risk could be mitigated — and almost eliminated, city officials say — if federal officials would green-light a proposed 36-mile-long diversion channel that would funnel away 35,000 cubic feet of water per second. The cost: $1.4 billion over 10 years, the federal portion of which comes to about $90 million a year.

“We’ll spend a lot more money because we don’t prepare in the first place,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, whose northwest Minnesota district includes Moorhead. “That happened with [Hurricane] Katrina — I remember [former Louisiana Rep.] Billy Tauzin telling me 15 years ago that New Orleans was going to flood and they wouldn’t spend a few hundred million dollars to fix it, and look what happened.

“When are we ever going to learn?”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that, once built, 100-year floods would fall from a crest of 42.4 feet to 30.6 feet. The dreaded 500-year flood would fall from 46.7 feet to 40 feet.

Thing is, you can’t really fight a flood in that area with a crest much above 40 feet. The City of Fargo estimates it takes 562,000 sandbags to battle back a 40-foot flood. For a 41-foot flood, it’s around 2.6 million, and for a 42-foot flood it’s 4 million.

And so far, they’ve been lucky. Floods in recent years have only come from the Minnesota or the North Dakota side, not both. Some years the weather turns and the waters ice up. Other years the rains of April don’t come.

Eventually, they won’t be so lucky.

The Corps estimates $195.9 million in damages a year without a diversion channel. Building one costs the feds around $90 million a year for 10 years. So it’s an easy call, right?

Not in Washington, it’s not.

Money will be spent, the question is how
Two years ago, this wouldn’t have been an issue.

With a benefit-to-cost ratio of 2.26, the Red River diversion would have been a prime candidate for stimulus dollars, not to mention inclusion in an ever-inflating federal budget.

But after years of profligate spending (and racking up profane deficits and debt), officials in Congress and the White House say it’s now time to crack down on the spending.

Republicans have blocked extensions of unemployment insurance over concerns it’s not paid for. President Obama promised Monday that in next year’s budget he’d be “calling their bluff” with painful cuts.

Adding to the difficulty is that the Red River diversion is simply too large a project to fund through earmarks — “It wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance,” said North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan.

“Byron [Dorgan] is exactly right,” Peterson said. “If we don’t get this in the president’s budget, this will be very hard to do.”

Dorgan convened a hearing Monday featuring seemingly every lawmaker directly connected with the issue. Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and Peterson were there from Minnesota, alongside the entire North Dakota delegation.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven flew in for the day, as did the mayors of Fargo and Moorhead and much of their city councils and staffs.

Pawlenty said he wanted to take the proposal from simply a proposal to inevitability. “That’s the plan,” he said.

Klobuchar called the diversion a “critical” need. “Fighting floods every year is an enormous undertaking, and families in Minnesota and North Dakota need a permanent flood protection plan,” she said.

“The people of Fargo and Moorhead have done a tremendous job in fighting back the floods these past two years,” Franken agreed. “But these aren’t hundred year floods anymore — they are annual. And I don’t think anyone in this room wants to imagine the devastation if Fargo and Moorhead can’t hold back the water next time.

“We’re not just talking about devastation of property and livelihoods. We’re talking about loss of life.” 

That message was not lost on the White House.

“It’s clearly a serious issue, and we’re taking it seriously,” said Sally Ericsson, Office of Management and Budget associate director of natural resources, energy and science.

Retiring OMB chief Peter Orszag, who arrived minutes before the meeting adjourned, assured attendees that the Obama administration “appreciates how serious the project is.”

The Obama administration has already once appropriated money for the Red River diversion — the cash to support the study that concluded with the diversion plan. But neither Ericsson nor Orszag gave any indication one way or the other as to whether this might get funded.

Just as the math on Fargo and Moorhead’s side is simple, so too is the math for the White House and Congress.

There is a queue $67 billion deep of projects that have been authorized but not yet funded. There is just $5 billion set aside annually to fund them. And this new project would have to cut the line to get done inside a decade.

And given the backlog and desire to cut spending, OMB is considering a 2.5 benefit/cost ratio cutoff for any new projects. This one, at 2.26, doesn’t meet that mark.

“I think this project has to be done one way or the other,” Pawlenty said. “It’s $1.5 billion over 10 years, so it’s significant, but it’s not game changing in terms of the federal budget.

“As with everything else, it’s what are your priorities?”

Related content

To view Fargo’s presentation to the Army Corps and White House OMB, go here. [PPT]

Project Timeline

July: Complete external peer review of plan.

July 15:
Receive letters of support from sponsoring governments, including commitments to pay their shares. Govs. Tim Pawlenty and John Hoeven, as well as Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland, indicated this was a formality.

Aug. 9: Public review period completed.

Plan reviewed by the Civil Works Review Board in Washington. Feasibility report to be finalized and public meetings held in the Fargo-Moorhead area on the final plan.

November: Final design agreement approved.

December: Army Corps officially approves the plan. Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp was at the meeting Monday, and seemed supportive of the plan in general. Given how closely the Corps has been working with Fargo-Moorhead officials on this plan, this step is the easier of the two needed to begin the project.

The is then submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for inclusion in President Obamas Fiscal 2012 budget.

January: Plans and specifications begun.

February: President Obama releases his fiscal year 2012 budget. Rep. Collin Peterson and Sen. Byron Dorgan said that the project is too big to earmark, thus must be appropriated in the budget to have a chance at passage. The hardest step will be getting it from approval to appropriated, they said.

Sept. 30: Deadline to pass a budget before the new fiscal year (which starts Oct. 1). In recent years, not all appropriations have passed, and extenders have been used to fill the gaps. If they are, the project will be delayed.

November-December: The appropriations are likeliest to pass during the lame duck session, especially in a presidential election cycle and particularly if unpopular cuts or revenue hikes will have to be made.

Break ground and begin construction. Construction is estimated to take between eight and nine years to complete.

Source: Army Corps of Engineers, Office of Management and Budget

Costs of major projects in Minnesota

$1.9 billion: Mall of America expansion (estimated)

$1.4 billion: Red River diversion channel (estimated)

$1 billion: Central Corridor light rail (estimated)

$800 million: Proposed new Vikings stadium

$555 million: Target Field

$288.5 million: TCF Bank Stadium

$234 million: Replacement I-35W bridge

Source: MinnPost research

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 06/29/2010 - 07:15 pm.

    Good coverage.

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