WASHINGTON — Six months from Thursday, plans for how to store one million acre-feet of water during spring flooding will be finalized. The funding mechanisms will be identified, start dates will be decided and the legislative language needed to make it all happen will be outlined, if not fully drafted.
That language, along with an authorization for around $500 million in federal dollars (half of the $1 billion needed), will be inserted into the next Farm Bill early in 2011 and passed sometime in 2012. Every year for the next 10, some of the hundreds of projects to be completed will be finished and the Red River of the North will annually crest 10 feet lower, reducing the flood risk from catastrophic to manageable from below Moorhead all the way downstream to the Canadian border.
That’s the plan, anyways.
Rep. Collin Peterson, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and North Dakota Rep. Earl Pomeroy met Thursday in Moorhead to start that process with a listening meeting and press conference. The goal, Peterson said, is to “get people to understand what we’re doing” and “get all these ideas on the table.”
The table, and what’s on it
One idea Peterson hopes to use is called tiling. Think of it as a giant external French drain, where a perforated pipe runs under the ground to channel water away. “You can store twice as much water underground as you can above ground,” Peterson said.
He’d also like to harness existing lakes to hold more water. The lakes would be lowered by six inches to a foot in the fall, then allowed to build up water levels to as much as a foot above normal levels.
The more controversial sister scheme to that would be to do much the same thing but on existing wetlands. Drains would be installed to allow for control of water that could be drained in the fall and kept in the spring.
“It’s just a matter of getting everything that’s out there on the table,” he said.
To that point, Peterson is soliciting suggestions he doesn’t necessarily like.
One of those comes out of the University of North Dakota, where researchers there have proposed something called the “waffle plan.” It’s a bit complicated, but basically involves using existing roads and smaller culverts as levees.
Let’s say there are rural roads (built up several feet above the surrounding farmlands) connected in a 16-mile square. Water would be allowed to flow into the middle of that and held into place by the roads.
Peterson said he’s “not a huge fan” of the waffle plan because of concerns that the roads could be washed out — but he said he’s willing to consider it as an option.
Ultimately, hundreds of these sorts of projects will be combined to complete the retention project — but only if Peterson, Klobuchar and their allies can get all the stakeholders on board.
Confusion breeds controversy
There are two concurrent plans to lower the water levels on the Red River.
Diversion is the controversial one. A second channel would be built around the city of Fargo that would act as a ring river during floods, channeling 35,000 cubic feet of water per second around the Fargo-Moorhead area and, according to estimates from city leaders there, reduce huge floods to fightable levels.
The diversion would be built from back to front, and it wouldn’t be “turned on” so to speak until everything was ready to go in an effort to reduce the risk of diverting water to areas that aren’t ready to handle it.
But the $1.4 billion plan has met with opposition from those whose land would be taken to build the diversion, as well as those downstream concerned about the extra diverted water flooding their towns.
Peterson’s plan is separate yet concurrent. The problem is that residents all along the Red River from Fargo-Moorhead on north generally don’t know the difference. At a town hall meeting in his district last week, Peterson was confronted by a questioner concerned by his retention plan who illustrated her point by listing grievances she had with the diversion.
That’s worrying, he said, because plans this intricate require broad support.
“If we’re going to make this happen, we’ve got to pull together,” Peterson said. “We can’t have anybody working across purposes.”