Fargo, Moorhead grapple with how best to protect region against future flooding

Travis Hersrud shovels slush from behind the sandbag dike
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Travis Hersrud shovels slush from behind the sandbag dike that protects a relative’s home from floodwaters in Oakport Township, north of Moorhead, Minn., March 27.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — It’s a difficult, emotional, often bitter negotiation that local officials conduct with people who dearly love their riverfront property despite chances the river will overwhelm them some spring day and carry everything away.

The tense scene is about to play out on a large scale in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., and in rural townships up and down the Red River Valley, as federal and state agencies, local governments and individual citizens grapple with how best to protect the region — and the nation’s taxpayers — against major flooding.

In countless posts to newspaper websites here, people from across the country have reacted to images of the rampaging Red River by posing a pointed question: “Why do people live there, so close to that river?” And, “Why do governments let them live there?”

Moorhead has allowed developments in the floodplain since the 1997 floods, “but the developers did raise the elevation of the subdivision so it was out of the 100-year floodplain,” City Planner Debra Martzahn said. “They flood-proofed basements, beyond what our code requires. They’ve been very conscientious.

“But this flood is extreme,” she said. “It’s higher here than it was in 1997, so it’s a problem.”

Attractive, convenient location
People are naturally drawn to the river, Martzahn said. “We have a lot of parkland by the river, so it’s convenient for people who like to walk, bike or fish.

“Our zoning seemed to be reasonable up until now, but maybe we need to look at our code to see if we should be allowing development this close to the river.”

Lynn Stauss, mayor of East Grand Forks, was mayor in 1997 and had to order his city evacuated.

“These communities were built a long time ago,” he said. “They were on the waterways because this is where the Voyageurs traded with Native Americans. Oxcarts followed river trails, and steamboats came. The railroads brought settlers.

“It’s hard to just pick up a community and move it.”

East Grand Forks did pick up whole neighborhoods after 1997. Close to 500 homes and businesses took buyouts.

Moving affects city population, tax base
“Sometimes when businesses are bought out, they don’t rebuild,” Stauss said. “They move somewhere else, or the people retire, and that affects your population and tax base. Fargo-Moorhead is going to have to face that, and it’s not easy to do.”

But with the permanent flood protection system in place, “our people have never been as much at ease as they are now.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who toured the floodwall with Stauss on Friday, cited “the great example of East Grand Forks” as he called for a broad solution to Red River flooding. “We’ve had enough of this cycle repeating itself,” he said.

“We need to move to permanent solutions,” and it may take creation of “a regional authority that will break through some of the logjams.”

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., joined the governor in East Grand Forks. “Everybody is of the same mind: We’ve had enough,” he said. “We need protection in the whole valley. We need to hold some of this water back on both sides of the river, and then we won’t have to build the dikes so high.”

Rep. Collin Peterson
Rep. Collin Peterson

Some argue that Red River flooding has been exacerbated by the draining of wetlands and farmers’ use of tiles and ditches to move water off their fields faster. Others counter that the valley flooded before much of that work was done; until 1997, the record Red River crest at East Grand Forks came in 1897.

The ‘waffle plan’
In any event, there have been frequent recommendations for holding more water back, perhaps through a “waffle plan” advanced by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

The plan envisions holding water on farm fields, much as a waffle’s ridges pool syrup, and controlling its release through sluice gates in times of flood. It likely would face stiff opposition from farmers reluctant to see land out of production.

“The farmland is all tilled up now,” said Stauss, who favors a hard look at the waffle plan. “They’ve knocked down forest areas and created drainage that goes quickly to the ditches, and those ditches go directly to the river.”

Townspeople aren’t without blame, he said. “We build parking lots and houses with driveways onto streets with gutters, and all these drain much faster to the river. Our arenas and commercial buildings have large surface areas, parking lots and roofs, and as the rain comes off, it rushes to the river.”

Peterson: May need water agency ‘with teeth’
Peterson said a broad solution may require a new Red River basin water agency “with teeth.” Some of its decisions will be controversial and difficult, he said, “and somebody has to have the power to make those decisions.”

North of Moorhead, Rocky Swanson can see grass again in his backyard in Oakport Township, as the Red River has relinquished some of the land it seized while swelling to its historic crest there last week.

Swanson and his wife, Bonnie, threw 5,000 sandbags to build a dike around their house (and ring their granddaughter’s dollhouse). Their basement took water while they were evacuated, but they had moved everything from the basement to the main floor.

“So it’s a good day,” Swanson said, surveying the receding river from his island redoubt. “The dog kennels are out of water, too, so I can get the dogs home.”

The Swansons and four other Oakport homeowners demurred when township officials offered buyouts in an effort to clear a broader way for the Red River and reduce potential flood losses. Thirteen riverfront owners in the township accepted.

“For the price, you just can’t find a place like this,” Swanson said, explaining why so far he hasn’t taken the buyout offer. “It’s a beautiful area here, with great views. You’re not stuck in town with people 5 feet to either side of you. We got a little water this time, but a week or two later it’ll look OK around here and you forget about it.”

Levee extension talks broke down
You hear much the same in the Burke Addition just south of the Grand Forks city limits. After the 1997 flood, the Corps of Engineers recommended a line for a permanent levee that left those homes exposed. Most of the people there wanted protection, but they were opposed to annexation and negotiations for extending the levee broke down.

“Neighbors who had fought the ’97 flood together wound up being angry at each other,” said John Fick, who had hoped to see the dike extended to protect his Burke Addition home. “It was painful.”

Greg Muchow and Jane Eastes
REUTERS/Eric Miller
Greg Muchow, left, and Jane Eastes move a sled of photographs and documents from the home of a co-worker in Oakport Township near Moorhead, Minn., on March 27.

Ask him why he lives by the water and he looks past a wall of sandbags and imagines summer or fall, eagles flying by, the plum tree producing.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” he said. “It’s a very peaceful, serene setting.”

At local levels, officials often lack the power, clear jurisdiction or political will to do much more than suggest a voluntary resolution to a problem.

“Rivers are very attractive places,” said Jerry DeFelice, a FEMA official monitoring the Red River Valley floods. “We see it again and again: People like to live by the water, and they think they walk around with an immunity card. They think they won’t get flooded. Also, cities allow development on the river because of history, the culture and development pressures.”

A big government carrot
FEMA, the Corps and other federal agencies had a big carrot — hundreds of millions of dollars for permanent flood protection — to encourage the implementation and enforcement of strict land-use standards in the Grand Forks-East Grand Forks floodplain.

“Better land use planning is a big part of the mission of emergency management at every level,” DeFelice said. “Locally, it should be a high priority. We do what we can with the state and locals to talk about floodplain management, but they’re living here. It’s their heritage.”

In a paper prepared in 2007 for the Association of State Floodplain Managers, a land-use expert at the University of Denver suggested that population growth, climate change and other factors make better watershed planning essential.

“Fragmented governments at all levels … are not well set up to deal with natural systems such as … watersheds,” James van Hemert wrote.

His report led to a 67-page manifesto issued from a national flood policy forum in Washington, D.C.

‘We have not been able to keep pace’
From the executive summary: “In spite of heavy investments of public and private dollars and decades of management … we have not been able to keep pace with continually increasing flood losses in the United States.

“At the outset of the 21st century, unprecedented conditions — in the form of population growth and migration, changes in climate, and serious degradation of water-based resources — have entered the stage. They are colliding with the cumulative impacts of the last century’s well-meaning but misguided policies — failure to provide for the maintenance of infrastructure, development at the expense of natural resources, overreliance on engineering solutions — to overwhelm current attempts to reduce flood losses and to protect water-based resources.”

Without significant changes in floodplain management, “by 2050 flood losses are likely to be far greater, ecosystems may well collapse (and) the nation’s quality of life will be diminished,” the report states.

In 2000, three years after the Red River chased most of the population from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Dr. Michael Brown ran for mayor of Grand Forks.

The permanent flood-control system developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and embraced by Mayor Pat Owens and the City Council had put Brown’s home on the wet side of the new dike.

Like many others who faced the loss of a home, Brown resisted.

“I fought tooth and nail,” he said. “That’s why I ran — the city took my home.”

Brown defeats Mayor Owens
He won the election, defeating Owens, who had won sympathy, admiration and support from around the country for her pluck during the flood and its immediate aftermath but lost local support as the recovery dragged on. That made Brown the city’s point man with FEMA, the Corps of Engineers and other agencies looking to prevent a repeat of 1997’s devastation.

Now in his third term, Brown proudly shows off the city’s flood-control system, including the dikes, which despite the Red River’s third-highest crest in history last week have kept the city high, dry and remarkably calm.

“It was very painful to move people, but we did it respectfully,” he said. “In Lincoln Park and other places, families had lived for three generations.”

Owens, who went to work for FEMA after she lost the 2000 election, lives now in Florida.

“FEMA, before they did all our help, they made sure we moved back from the river,” she said. “It was tough because our code-enforcement people had to enforce that. That’s where I ran into so many problems. So many houses had to be moved or torn down, and people love their property.

 ‘Best thing to be done, but it was hard
“Mike Brown’s house was right on the dike, and all those people in there were reluctant at that time. We share a laugh about it now. We’ve talked about it. He says that was the best thing to be done, but it was hard.”

One of the key players in Grand Forks’ 1997 flood fight was Howard Swanson, then and now the city attorney. In the years after the flood, he found himself on a national speaking circuit.

“East Coast to West Coast,” he said, “the first question often was, ‘How could you have that many people close to the river?’ 

“It’s not a difficult legal issue. Cities can require the taking of property with compensation. But it is certainly more difficult from an emotional and a political perspective.”

He said he expects Fargo and Moorhead to “go through conversations, debates and arguments similar to what we went through.” But those cities so far have been spared major damage, and it can be more difficult to find the political will for necessary decisions and responses “when people haven’t experienced disaster.”

Even before 1997, Grand Forks did not allow new building in what’s called the floodway, the land most likely to flood at times of high water, Swanson said. Fewer restrictions governed the larger expanse called the floodplain, likely to get water only with major flooding.

People ‘have no idea what flat means’
“But most people who don’t live here have no idea what flat means,” Swanson said. “I told them to look at the table in front of them and imagine spilling their coffee. Essentially, that’s the terrain of the Red River Valley at Grand Forks, where elevation rises from the river at about a foot a mile.”

His home is 4 miles from the river. In 1997, water reached to within 3 feet of his steps.

After the 1997 flood, Grand Forks bought out 1,100 parcels of property, including about 800 homes and 50 businesses, to prepare for construction of permanent levees.

Before a flood, developers and people looking for dream homes with woodsy river views may put irresistible pressure on local governments to go easy on restrictions. After a flood, areas targeted for clearing may defend their neighborhoods as economically vital, aesthetically valuable or historically important, and officials may fear chasing them away.

“That’s true with both residential and business relocation,” Swanson said. “We know that in the course of our buyout program, we had some residents who used the buyout as an opportunity to leave Grand Forks.”

Chuck Haga, a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, writes about western Minnesota and the Dakotas for MinnPost. He can be reached at chaga [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by David Thompson on 04/07/2009 - 10:52 am.

    Thanks for a very informative story! It seems pretty clear that the 100-year floods of the past are now the 10-year floods.

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