Join us for the fifth section of the Living With Water project: Making Policy For Water.
The record-level events of 2009, 2010 and 2011 only solidified that consensus, and community leaders continue making strides this year to make that dream a reality.
But the plans to build a $1.78 billion Red River diversion don’t come without significant obstacles: federal red tape, passionate opposition and undetermined funding sources, to name a few.
After working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for three years on a feasibility study, Fargo-Moorhead officials are moving forward on their chosen plan to build a 35-mile-long, half-mile-wide diversion channel.
Of first concern, though: The channel by itself would’ve created consequences on the Red River north of Fargo-Moorhead all the way to Canada.
So, to prevent an international dispute, corps engineers designed elements to the project that would shift the impacts upstream.
The corps proposes a 200,000- acre-feet storage area that they say would be used to hold back excess water only in times of severe flooding.
But the corps’ solution sparked a slew of new complications for the project, including the potential to destroy whole communities south of Fargo-Moorhead.
The upstream storage area could hold as much as 8 feet of water in some places, which would require towns like Oxbow and Hickson to be bought out completely.
That prospect has hundreds of rural residents clamoring for changes to the project, as they foresee a not-so-distant future when their livelihoods could be uprooted against their will.
The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority – a governing body that’s comprised of local city, county and water board leaders – has vowed to seek alternatives that would ease the proposed impacts and, they hope, prevent such an outcome.
Several studies are under way and slated to wrap up as early as this summer, including a proposal to increase the allowable river flows through Fargo-Moorhead.
That solution, encouraged by many local leaders, would reduce how often the diversion would need to be used, easing the impact on upstream communities.
Meanwhile, Diversion Authority officials and engineers with the corps continue to urge patience among area residents who seek definitive solutions about the final project and the proposed timeline.
Local leaders have cleared several hurdles in the process so far, but Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker is among the first to caution that the project is far from inevitable.
In December, the top chief at the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on a final feasibility study, and officials expect the chief will also sign a “record of decision” in April – milestones that allow Congress to consider the project yet this year.
Congress must both authorize and fund the F-M diversion before any buyouts or construction could begin.
That process might start in a year or later, depending on how swiftly Congress acts on the proposal.
At the earliest, the diversion could be complete by 2021, and a lot can happen in the nine years until then.
During that time, Diversion Authority officials said they hope to finalize their funding sources to pay for the $1.78 billion project, as well as the operating and maintenance costs that will require at least $3.6 million each year.
The federal government, the states of North Dakota and Minnesota, Cass County and Fargo are all sharing in the cost of the project to varying degrees.
Each government entity has different options to fund its share, but overall, very few specific plans exist to guarantee the project’s funding.
With the creation of the Diversion Authority last year, officials hope the board will allow for a more streamlined approach to handling the finances of the project, including funding sources.
In the interim, rural residents upstream have vowed to fight the project, potentially in the courts.
Fargo-Moorhead officials say they empathize with the residents, but they also stress that despite their best efforts, no project of this magnitude is without impacts.
Nearly 6,900 acres of prime farmland will be taken out of operation just for the land needed to construct the channel.
In all, the proposed channel has a footprint of more than 8,000 acres, not including the area that will be used for temporary water storage.
Kristen Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
LAKE DARLING DAM, N.D. – The 5 to 7 inches of rain that fell over vast plains of southern Saskatchewan and concentrated in the tiny Souris River last summer was the cause of the worst flood the Minot area had ever seen.
A quarter of the population of the state’s fourth-largest city evacuated, and thousands of properties were damaged.
In Kelly Hogan’s mind, though, it might have been a whole lot worse.
“What if 5 to 7 inches hit Kenmare? It would’ve all come down the Des Lacs,” he said as he gave a tour of the dam on a sunny day last August, less than two months after the flood.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife manager oversees the wildlife refuge complex that includes this dam on the Souris River, the last in a series of dams up and down the basin that serves as the Minot area’s flood protection system.
Kenmare is west of here on the Des Lacs River, which drains into the Souris downstream of all the dams but just upstream of Minot. What Hogan meant is, if torrential rain had fallen there and not in Canada, none of it would’ve been held back by dams and all of it would’ve poured into Minot.
That happened in summer 2009, though there wasn’t quite as much rain.
Lake Darling was low because the spring runoff that year didn’t amount to much, Hogan said. There was plenty of flood storage available, he said, but it wasn’t used at all.
“It’s not how much rain falls but where the rain falls,” he said. “It all plays into how predictable the situation is – or is not, I guess I should say.”
But rain is now considered as much a threat as spring snowmelt, the cause of most floods throughout the basin’s history. So as unpredictable as rain can be, the state of North Dakota is working with the province of Saskatchewan to work it into the operations of the basin’s flood protection system.
It’s also mulling the buildup of existing dams, including Lake Darling Dam and the dam on the Des Lacs, and a dike system in the Minot area. Just about every option that could be on the table appears to be on the table to prevent what happened in 2011 from happening again.
A big push now is in Saskatchewan.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., were there a few weeks ago to talk with Premier Brad Wall, and they came away with a general agreement on a few key issues.
One of those key issues is the inclusion of rainfall in the operating plan of Rafferty and Alameda dams in Saskatchewan. The plan now calls for the dams to reduce the water they hold to account for snowmelt in the spring but not so much for rain in the summer.
North Dakota and Saskatchewan officials also agreed to study increasing the flow of water released from the dams, provide real-time data from rain gauges in Saskatchewan and, in general, be more “flexible and aggressive” during flood events, said Jeff Zent, Dalrymple’s spokesman.
The problem last summer was the dams had been drawn down to deal with a big snowmelt, but they weren’t drawn down enough for the torrential rain that fell. Simply put, the amount of rain that flowed into the dams was many times more than they could contain.
Changing the plan, though, may require the United States to make some sacrifices.
State Engineer Todd Sando, who will be involved in the negotiations, acknowledged that the unpredictability of rain will be a challenge to tackle, especially when the dams also serve double duty storing water in case of droughts.
In other words, if the dams release water to prepare for torrential rain and the rain doesn’t fall or doesn’t fall where it’s expected, there will be less water going into the next year. And if the next year is a dry year, and perhaps the year after that, water will suddenly become much more valuable.
Preserving that valuable resource was the main reason Saskatchewan built the dams in the first place. The 1989 U.S.-Canada agreement, which the dams operate under, lays out not just how the two countries will fight flooding but also how they will share water.
Sando said the agreement already requires the United States to give up its share of the water in some situations. It’s not out of the question that to get rain included in the operating plan, the United States would have to give up more water, he said, though that could bring on other problems.
Kelly Hogan can appreciate the capriciousness of rain.
Suppose it rains on a Friday night on that hill over there, he said. The next day, he’s looking at a rain gauge that says 3 inches, he said, but that’s still not enough information to know how it’ll affect his stretch of the river.
“I don’t know how extensive that rain was. I don’t have a gauge every square mile,” he said. “The way I’m going to know is when that rain and all the rain around it hits a point on a stream. So that may be 24 hours. It may be, in the case of a flash flood, six hours.
Depending how much sinuosity is in a stream, it may be four to five days. But you can’t grasp how that rain really affected an area until it hits that gauging station. There just aren’t enough rain gauges in the world.”
The situation isn’t much different in Saskatchewan, though there are fewer rain gauges for a given area.
But it’s not rain gauges that’s really needed there, according to Doug Johnson, a Saskatchewan Watershed Authority official who oversees several dams, including the Souris basin’s Rafferty and Alameda dams. What’s needed is better weather radar.
Weather radar gives water management officials a sense of the water content in a given cloud formation and if rain is falling. Rain gauges and stream flow gauges are used to calibrate the radar data so officials can connect a given radar pattern with a certain amount of rainfall.
Johnson said when he looks at radar images from the National Weather Service office in Bismarck, which doesn’t go very far in Canada, he sees things that he can’t see in Environment Canada’s radars, such as how much rain is falling, how hard it’s falling and how much has fallen.
In Canada, he said, a lot of that has to be figured out manually, and it’s a huge amount of information to calculate during a flood emergency. The system has worked out fine for years when summer rains weren’t so threatening, he said.
Ready for summer
But changing the dams’ operating plan won’t really be enough to fend off another flood of the same magnitude as summer 2011.
Hogan said there was enough water to fill Lake Darling 10 times, while Johnson said Rafferty Dam, which has the largest reservoir of all the dams, would’ve filled two to three times.
And the dams would’ve had to be empty to start with.
Sando, like other water management officials involved in the flood fight, said that with the dams as they are, the flood was inevitable. “Everything was done that could possibly be done.”
He said changes to the operating plan would be more useful for fighting major floods that are not as big as the one in 2011.
To fight the really big one, the state is at work designing a massive system of dikes and diversion for the Minot area. It’s also mulling a larger flood control system for the entire North Dakota portion of the Souris basin and adding capacity to various dams in the basin.
Sando said there have been very early discussions about raising the Rafferty, Alameda, Lake Darling and Boundary dams, and there could be talk of raising the dam on the Des Lacs as well.
Boundary Dam is on Long Creek, a tributary of the Souris, but its storage is mostly dedicated to the SaskPower power plant there.
But Sando said all of that could take a long time. Changes to the operating plan, for example, must include not just the state and provincial governments but federal agencies in both countries, he said. “I can see it taking years to make some of those changes.”
In the meantime, he said, officials will simply have to do what they can to make more room in the reservoirs in case of rain. The goal this year, he said, is to have maximum flood storage available before the start of this summer, something flood fighters didn’t have in summer 2011.
Tu-Uyen Tran reports for the Grand Forks Herald.
Managing water is expensive and never-ending. But as the Netherlands’ long history with flood control shows, it can be done.
A 36-mile-long diversion ditch around Fargo. A network of 100-plus artificial lakes for retaining water, many of them a square mile or more in size. An effort to forestall a disastrous breakout by draining the brimful Devils Lake.
Manipulating Lake Sakakawea’s water level in hopes of avoiding massive Missouri River floods.
These and other projects you’ll find detailed in today’s “Living with Water” section, which is devoted to water management.
But together, they beg this overarching question:
Is it worth it?
Really, is it? Twenty years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, North Dakota and Minnesota newspapers could have found plenty of flood-and-drought stories to fill pages with. The Souris-Red-Rainy River Basin Commission’s study of regional water issues ran eight full volumes, and that was in 1972.
The Tri-State Waters Commission was set up “to correlate plans and prevent duplication of efforts” – in 1937.
Yet even after a century of our best efforts, even after studies, commissions, dikes and dams, the only safe prediction remains this: Water will win in the end.
So, what’s the point?
Don’t we remember the ultimate lesson of the story of King Canute – the fact that the good king tried but failed to hold back the tide?
For an answer, start by looking at the photos on this page.
The photos show windmills in the Dutch town of Kinderdijk. The network of windmills is the largest in the Netherlands; they’re one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.
And they remind us that not only do humanity’s efforts to manage water go back a long, long way, but also those efforts can and do get things right.
That is, if “getting things right” means enabling people to live comfortably in conditions that range and sometimes swing radically from “too wet” to “too dry.”
The Netherlands, of course, has been battling “too wet” for more than 1,000 years. For example, the Kinderdijk windmills date back to 1740. That was when residents built the structures to pump water out of the perpetually flooding “polders,” the diked-and-drained lands that make up so much of the Netherlands.
Now, go back an additional 300 years, this time to 1421. That was the year of the St. Elizabeth flood, which flooded the polders near where the photos on this page was taken.
According to Dutch legend, villagers spotted a cradle floating far off on the flooded area. As it approached, they also saw a cat jumping back and forth to keep the cradle from capsizing. Closer still, and the villagers saw in the cradle a baby, sleeping, smiling and dry.
Hence the name, “Kinderdijk” – “Children’s dike.” Like so much in Holland, the name pays homage to the country’s centuries-long battle against floods.
In 1998, the Grand Forks Herald was part of a Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba delegation that visited the Netherlands. A few months earlier, the 1997 flood had ravaged Grand Forks and other communities, and the delegation hoped to study and learn from the Dutch experience.
The country’s situation astounds observers to this day. “Grand Forks frets about its swollen river for a few weeks in the spring,” the Herald noted in a story after the delegation’s
“Ten million people and 60 percent of The Netherlands would be flooded every day if the country let nature have its way.
“North Dakota is flat. But The Netherlands are flatter, if such a thing is possible. A full third of the country’s tabletop-flat terrain actually sits below sea level. On the far side of Dutch seawalls is the ocean, and waves crash against the barricades 24 hours a day.
“No wonder one of the country’s national heroes, honored in statue and song, is a boy – the legendary boy who kept his finger in the dike.”
The cat-and-the-cradle of Kinderdijk is the same, another favorite Netherlands folk tale.
As these examples show and as the delegation learned, flood control has forever been a part of the Netherlands’ character and lore.
So, has it been worth it?
Absolutely. Without a doubt. As the Dutch experience shows, managing water can be a costly and eternal struggle.
But the Netherlands – one of the most prosperous and respected democracies on Earth – learns from its mistakes, improves its systems over time and recovers from the inevitable setbacks.
America’s Upper Midwest can do and is doing the same.
Sure, water will win in the end. But that won’t happen for a long, long time, if Netherlanders have their way. Major cities such as Amsterdam and Rotterdam are protected against storms that take place on the order of once every 10,000 years.
And as for King Canute, all he did was bring his throne down to the water’s edge, lift his scepter on high and issue a command. The tide kept rolling in.
Perhaps he should have left his scepter in his castle and instead come armed with the control box for the Maaslantkering. That’s the set of swinging, Eiffel Tower-sized gates that close the waterway to Rotterdam when the North Sea starts to surge.
The gates are just one part of the Netherlands’ Delta Works coastal protection system, which the American Society of Civil Engineers has dubbed one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.
And with the Maaslantkering in the distance and the green “close” button in his hand, old Canute might have had better luck.
Tom Dennis – Grand Forks Herald opinion page editor.
West Fargo won protection from Sheyenne River flooding
WEST FARGO – Before the Sheyenne Diversion was built to protect communities west and southwest of Fargo, flooding plagued residents along the lower Sheyenne River for decades.
Former West Fargo City Commissioner Jake Gust remembers the 1969 and 1975 floods as “especially serious.” One person died fighting the flood of 1975, and the ’69 event alone cost about $500,000 in protection and cleanup efforts.
“Everyone was on board that we had to do something,” recalled Gust, who eventually became the Sheyenne Diversion’s superintendent after his 26-year tenure in city office.
Agreeing on what that “something” might be wasn’t easy, but since the Sheyenne Diversion became operational in 1992, it has continually protected the booming suburbs of West Fargo and Horace from some of the highest floods on record.
In the late 1960s, Congress authorized plans to build a dam near Kindred, which was meant to provide residents in the lower Sheyenne River Valley a reprieve from flood fights.
The project never came to fruition.
Consistent opposition from affected residents and vocal concerns from environmentalists forced numerous delays, only prompting more impediments to the project.
Throughout the 1970s, the Army Corps of Engineers, along with city and regional officials living near the Sheyenne River, studied various alternatives to the unfavorable dam, according to Forum archives.
Ultimately, the corps circled back to a previous consideration: building a diversion channel around West Fargo.
The option, first devised in the 1960s, became one of the premier solutions under review due to its high return of protection compared to the cost.
After a wishy-washy few years of more debate, the corps moved forward in recommending the diversion project above other alternatives.
About two-thirds of the city resided in the 100-year floodplain in 1985, but a diversion would remove the whole city from that area, providing some of the highest benefit for flood protection, according to Forum archive reports.
In 1986, President Ronald Reagan approved the $16.3 billion water bill that included federal funds toward building the diversion.
Reagan’s signature cleared the final major obstacle for West Fargo officials to begin construction on the project.
In June 1990, crews broke ground to build the 6.8-mile diversion channel and its accompanying features.
The diversion became operational in time for the 1992 spring flood, and the project was deemed finished later that year at a final cost of $27.8 million.
The Sheyenne Diversion is comprised of two parts: a West Fargo diversion and a Horace diversion.
According to Gust: The Horace diversion, or the southern leg of the project, diverts only half the flow of the Sheyenne into the diversion channel.
That feature kicks in automatically once the river reaches a certain height.
In comparison, the West Fargo leg to the north diverts the whole river flow and is manually operated by gates and other control structures.
The project also uses two pumping stations to keep drainage water out of the natural river channel when the West Fargo diversion is in operation.
Diverting the Sheyenne River was the favorable alternative to building only levees throughout the city, Gust said.
“If we didn’t divert, we would’ve had to build a dike around the river in West Fargo quite high,” he said. “But the diversion allowed us to solve the problem without any dikes around the river.”
In its now 20-year history, the Sheyenne Diversion has yet to fail, but the project still isn’t without dissent from area residents concerned about the diversion’s impacts.
“I don’t think you could find anyone in West Fargo now who would say it was not a good device,” Gust said, but added: “There’s still people that claim it impacts them to the north and to the south, but there’s no evidence.”
Each spring during times of high flood, the cities of West Fargo and Horace remain protected thanks to the diversion.
Meanwhile, their neighbors outside of the channel’s protection are often inundated by overland floodwaters because the Sheyenne River channel is naturally higher than the surrounding terrain.
But Gust said it’s a fallacy to blame the diversion for the overland flooding.
“If I lived out there, I would feel the same way,” Gust said. “It’s hard to look at West Fargo high and dry and then drive a mile over the diversion and it’s all water. … But, the same amount of water that’s flown over them now would’ve flown over them before (without the diversion).”
The diversion has undoubtedly done wonders to benefit West Fargo, now the fifth-largest city in North Dakota.
After West Fargo withstood the historic flood of 1997, new residents flocked to the community, almost doubling the population to nearly 26,000 people.
When the diversion was built in the early ’90s, it protected more than 4,100 properties valued at about $280 million, according to the city of West Fargo.
But since 2008, those figures have jumped to more than 7,000 properties protected, with a total value of nearly $1.4 billion, and the growth continues.
As the cities of Fargo-Moorhead pursue their own diversion channel for the metro region, Gust said he sees striking parallels between the current struggle and the journey he made in the 1980s as a West Fargo commissioner battling for flood protection.
“It’s on a bigger scale,” Gust said of the Red River diversion plan. “It involves a lot more people. … You’re talking about seven times as much water or as much as 10 times more water (than the Sheyenne Diversion).”
But Gust said “there’s no reason why the Fargo diversion won’t work and won’t work very well.”
The Red River diversion will also likely impact West Fargo and its existing diversion, but corps officials have said it will provide even greater protection than the city sees now.
According to the corps’ feasibility study finished last year, the Red River diversion would tie into the Horace part of the Sheyenne Diversion, replacing and enhancing protection there.
North of that section, the Red River diversion would run alongside the West Fargo leg of the Sheyenne Diversion, allowing it to continue diverting Sheyenne River flows around the city.
In all, the Red River diversion should help reduce erosion pressures on the Sheyenne Diversion by helping channel larger water flows.
While generally supportive to the Red River project, West Fargo officials have voiced concerns about the planned interference with the West Fargo diversion and the prospect of losing access between the east and west sides of the half-mile-wide Red River diversion channel.
But West Fargo’s concerns are relatively muted in comparison to the vocal opposition of rural residents south of the planned Red River diversion, where a proposed storage area threatens to flood out some smaller communities.
Having faced such obstacles with the Sheyenne project, Gust said the fate of a Red River diversion is “going to depend on if the elected officials have the intestinal fortitude to stay the course.”
“They need to work like the dickens to lessen the effects and make sure it gets done,” Gust said. “If they weaken, it’s not going to get done.
“The time to prepare is now, when you can,” he added. “When the water’s high and over the dikes, there’s not much you can do.”
Kristen Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
GRAND FORKS – Take a look at the picture of the retention basin accompanying this article.
Like what you see?
Let’s hope so, because if you live in the Red River Valley, then similar structures likely will be coming soon to a landscape near you.
That’s because retaining water in this way is turning out to be one of the sharpest and most accurate arrows in the region’s flood-fighting quiver. So, the chances are good that 100 or more of these structures will be built and will start retaining and slowly releasing floodwater in the years to come.
Fighting valley floods by holding back water has been talked about for decades. But over the past 10 years, a few things have changed to make it more likely that actual projects will be built.
First, the talk has moved beyond damming streams and now encompasses retaining floodwater on farmland. The picture shows one such effort: the North Ottawa Impoundment Project, a man-made holding pond east of Breckenridge, Minn.
Snowmelt and other runoff from the surrounding 75-square-mile area can be channeled into the 3-square-mile pond and retained. The structure can hold and then gradually release 16,000 acre-feet of water, “enough to reduce peak flows on the Bois de Sioux River at Wahpeton/Breckenridge by about 5 percent,” the Bois de Sioux Watershed District reports.
Besides holding back runoff, the man-made lake also serves as a resting area for migrating waterfowl. Then when it’s drained, most of the land still can be farmed.
Add it up, and you’ve got a cost-effective flood control method that helps communities for many miles downstream, advocates say.
The second change in the strategy’s favor is that flood-fighting authorities are starting to give their blessing. In December, the Red River Basin Commission released its list of long-term recommendations to protect valley metro areas to the level of a 500-year flood and smaller communities to the 200-year flood level.
Along with the Fargo-Moorhead diversion, the strategy of retaining water came out on top: “A 20 percent reduction of peak flows along the main stem of the Red River for a flood of similar magnitude to the 1997 flood … was deemed both 1) achievable and 2) effective in reducing flood levels on both the tributaries and main stem,” the study concluded.
So, “over the next 20 to 25 years, Minnesota and North Dakota should support increasing protection to a 500-year flood level for Grand Forks-East Grand Forks by improving the cities’ current 200- to 250-year protection with upstream retention that achieves the potential minimum 20 percent flow reduction on the Red River main stem at Grand Forks.”
That’s the kind of official endorsement that starts to get things done.
The third change that works in retention’s favor is the ascendancy of Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., to leadership on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee.
Peterson strongly supports the basin commission’s broad goal, which is to render the valley capable of retaining more than 1 million acre-feet of water in times of flood. (Retaining
1.5 million acre-feet of water is what’s needed to reduce the Red River’s 1997-sized flow by 20 percent, the commission concluded. That would have been enough to prevent the 1997 Grand Forks-East Grand Forks flood.)
And Peterson’s Ag Committee status means he can help secure funding for the retention plans. That process is well under way: Two years ago, Peterson got the Red River Valley onto a list of priority conservation areas that qualify for Agriculture Department funding. The list also includes such notable water bodies as Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay; and to make a long story short, the upcoming farm bill is likely to make available money for retention projects in the valley.
Here’s a note from the minutes of the Jan. 10 meeting of the Red River Retention Authority, at which Peterson spoke:
“The message to the Board was that the Farm Bill will be approved at some point and there is the potential for $228 million to be available in Fiscal Year 2013 (October 1, 2012).
“Congressman Peterson strongly encouraged the Red River Retention Authority to get projects ready to go so as they may be able to access more than $50 million per year, provided there are good projects ready to go.”
In an interview, Peterson repeated that analysis and said, “The money is going to be there this year. If there’s anything to worry about, it’s that there aren’t going to be enough projects for us to use it on.”
Building the full 1.5 million acre-feet retention capacity likely will cost about $1.5 billion, the Red River Basin Commission reported. That’s a lot of money, but given a timeline that’s measured in years and the lineup of circumstances described above, it’s not an impossible dream.
Tom Dennis is the opinion editor for the Grand Forks Herald.
The National Weather Service spring flood outlooks this year have cast an encouraging light on flood mitigation projects throughout the Red River Basin.
Yes, it is actually possible that the Red River might not flood this spring.
Three years of annual flooding has left many of us with the mindset that it always floods in spring. It does not.
From 12,000 to 8,000 years ago, the Red River Valley and the Devils Lake Basin were a small part of a huge lake covering eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota, along with vast portions of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It had a surface area greater than all of today’s Great Lakes combined.
When Lake Agassiz partially drained to the south, it cut the river valleys currently occupied by the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. When it partially drained to the east, the introduction of so much fresh water into the north Atlantic disrupted the flow of the Gulf Stream and caused a thousand-year-long return to near glacial conditions around the world.
Eight thousand years ago is an eternity when compared to a human life. But it is insignificant when compared to 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs became extinct, or 4 1/2 billion years ago, when Earth formed. In geological time, the Red River Valley and Devils Lake are brand-spanking-new.
Those of us who have lost homes to the current high-water phase of the region may find little solace in this knowledge, but the fact remains that the years of one human life are nowhere near enough to make any sensible judgments about what sort of water levels are “normal.”
People talk about water “never being this high before” as if it were a significant observation. But the floods in 2011, 2010, 2009, 1997, etc., are likely quite insignificant when a grander scale is considered.
How high could the water conceivably go? Devils Lake is only a few feet from overflowing into the Sheyenne River, something it has done at least twice in the past 4,000 years. Devils Lake stops rising when it flows into the Sheyenne, but flooding increases significantly downstream in places like Valley City, Lisbon, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg.
For these downstream locations, not only is there Devils Lake water to contend with, but the size of the river’s watershed will have increased by the size of the Devils Lake Basin.
Precipitation falling on Churchs Ferry could cause a rise on the Red.
This grander scale also has a reverse side. The 1930s turned the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl. Since then, droughts have come occasionally but only a year or two at a time. The geological record ensures us that multiyear droughts will come again. In the distant past, there have even been mega-droughts lasting 50 to 100 years. The great civilizations of the Mayans and the cliff-dwelling people of the American Southwest may have been done in by one of these long-term droughts.
When it comes to water resource management, we have always had a tendency to react to the current problem. Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea, was built in the 1940s to solve the problem of flooding on the Missouri as well as to provide a solution to the water shortages across North Dakota experienced during the 1930s.
But the promise of bringing Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota has never been fulfilled, in part because of numerous, legitimate environmental concerns. But the absence of any long-term drought since the 1930s has certainly shifted public and political concern away from the problem.
A more environmentally friendly plan to deliver Missouri water to the Red River Valley by means of a pipeline began to gain momentum in the mid 2000s, but the flood of 2009 diverted our attention.
Now, Fargo-Moorhead leaders are hopeful that a massive diversion channel can be built. Legitimate controversy exists over where to divert the water to, but ultimately the project may have more trouble maintaining its momentum should the fickle nature of our climate shift back to drought.
Both drought and flood are hard realities of life here in the Red River and Devils Lake basins. The problem is, they reach extreme proportion only occasionally, giving us time to forget. Realistically, there is probably not much we can do if it stops raining for 40 years, or it rains for 40 days and 40 nights.
We cannot be prepared for everything. But better, reasonable management of our water systems will require that we develop a much wider view of how our weather can change.
John Wheeler, WDAY and WDAZ chief meteorologist.
Manitoban Doer stresses ‘collaboration’ while pressing Canada’s case on water
WASHINGTON – Ask Gary Doer about water issues between the United States and Canada and he quickly ticks off eight, east to west across the continent.
Ask a formula for dealing with them and Doer gives a three-word answer: “Collaboration. Collaboration. Collaboration.”
Probe a little and Doer’s responses become more nuanced. And a little tougher.
Part of this is a change in Doer’s role.
As premier of Manitoba for 10 years ending in 2009, Doer was a politician.
As Canada’s ambassador to the United States, Doer is a diplomat.
Part of it is due to shared emergency from flooding. “This year was unusual for both of us,” Doer said. “It’s hard to negotiate when you’re in water up over your waders.”
Part of it is due to changed circumstances.
Doer elaborated on these and Canadian government reactions to them in a wide-ranging interview. The interview took place on Feb. 13 in his office on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C., within sight of the U.S. Capitol.
Take Devils Lake for example.
As premier of the province, Doer took a hard line. Indeed, a 2005 memo from the U.S. State Department – one of the notorious WikiLeaks – warned of “a collision course” between the countries and blamed Doer’s “intransigence.”
The ambassador refused to comment on the memo, other than to say, “Not all the WikiLeaks were true” and this one “didn’t come from anyone I ever dealt with.”
Still, Doer was widely regarded as stubborn about Devils Lake, and American politicians sometimes accused him of political opportunism.
Since Doer left Winnipeg, Canadian rhetoric on Devils Lake has softened.
Doer’s explanation is that circumstances changed.
A scientific review established that there was only minimal risk that non-native species would reach Lake Winnipeg from Devils Lake. This helped spur four-party talks between North Dakota, the U.S. government, Manitoba and the Canadian government that allowed progress in managing the rise of Devils Lake.
At the same time, concern about sulfate levels in the lake proved less pressing – and more susceptible to what Doer called “a basinwide solution.”
Science, he said, helped Canada accept a Devils Lake outlet. One is operational. A second is under construction.
So did a change in North Dakota’s approach to the lake. The idea of bringing water from the Missouri River to help stabilize the level of the lake was abandoned. With it went the fear that species from the Missouri could get into Lake Winnipeg through a Devils Lake outlet.
Lake Winnipeg has been a focus of Canadian concern about U.S. water projects.
Lake of the Woods
Concern for Lake Winnipeg prompted a reference to the International Joint Commission, established by a 1909 treaty to manage cross-boundary waters. This involves Lake of the Woods, which straddles the border between Minnesota, Manitoba and Ontario.
The IJC is mapping sources of phosphorus entering Lake of the Woods, which drains into Lake Winnipeg through the Winnipeg River. The idea is that each country will take steps to reduce its contribution to phosphorus levels in the lake.
Nitrogen sources are being mapped, as well, though nitrogen is a lesser concern, at least given current scientific knowledge.
Phosphorus is a leading cause of algal blooms in Lake Winnipeg. These reduce the lake’s appeal for recreationists and deplete the oxygen that sustains fish in the lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It’s known in Canada as “the sixth Great Lake.”
Doer conceded that Canadian cities, especially Winnipeg, are major sources of phosphorous entering the lake,
A major effort – costing billions of dollars, Doer said – has been mounted to treat water. New treatment plants have been completed at Brandon and Portage la Prairie, Man. Winnipeg has recently brought the first of three treatment plants on line, a second is near completion.
Managing phosphorus entering Lake Winnipeg is an element in managing reservoirs on tributaries of the Red River as well. This is of consequence in North Dakota because at least two of these reservoirs were built to control flooding in Minot. These are Rafferty and Alameda reservoirs on the Souris River in southern Saskatchewan.
Last week, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple met with Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to discuss drawing down the Canadian reservoirs in advance of spring runoff, thus providing more storage for flood control.
The bonus would be collecting water that could flush into Lake Winnipeg later in the season, a tactic that could help dilute phosphorus runoff into Lake Winnipeg.
Doer’s office isn’t involved in talks between Saskatchewan and North Dakota but is monitoring them, he said.
He praised the meeting, held in Regina, Sask., as an example of “collaboration.”
Doer also suggested that “collaboration” might resolve another border irritant, an embankment along the border that Canadian officials refer to as a road and U.S. officials believe functions as a dike.
His government installed culverts that allow some water to pass through the embankment.
He insisted, however, that the flooding on the U.S. side of the border isn’t due entirely to the embankment. Instead, he said, water coming from the west arrives faster than it should under natural conditions – and slowing it down will help relieve flooding.
That will require concession south of the border.
Elements of policy
As background to all of these issues, Doer emphasized Canada’s concern about moving water from one drainage basin to another – a key element of Canadian opposition to the Garrison Diversion program of the 1980s and of its concern about possible use of Missouri River water in the cities of the Red River Valley, including Fargo and Grand Forks.
To press his point, Doer talked about Asian carp, an introduced species present in the Mississippi watershed. The fear is that the fish could invade the Great Lakes. To avoid this, Canada is pressing for controls on U.S. rivers, including electrical fences and impoundments preventing overland flooding that could breach the divide between drainage basins, including electric fences.
Doer returned to this point, and this example, several times in the hour-long interview.
“Two elements of water policy should inform us,” he said. “One is introducing alien species without knowing the impact. The other is changing the natural flow of water.”
Other water issues
Doer’s list of cross-boundary water issues from east to west:
- The Lake Champlain Basin in Vermont, New York and the Canadian province of Quebec, where there was extensive flooding in 2011;
- Water quality in the Great Lakes, including the introduction of saltwater and saltwater species in ballast water of ships using the lakes;
- Lake of the Woods, now before the IJC;
- Devils Lake, the subject of four-party talks;
- The Souris River, under discussion between North Dakota and Saskatchewan;
- The Flathead River Basin in Montana and British Columbia. A proposed coal mine in Canada was abandoned after U.S. interests warned of threats to water quality and the IJC recommended a program to offset investor losses.
- The Columbia River treaty, involving the Columbia basin in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia;
- Mapping the Beaufort Sea, where there is competition for minerals, especially oil in territory claimed by the United States, Canada and potentially Russia.
A striking feature of this list is that three of its eight items involve the middle of the continent, North Dakota, Minnesota and our neighbors.
Each of these three involves Manitoba – no surprise since a fifth of all the water in North America flows through the province.
No surprise either that a Canadian diplomat with deep roots in Manitoba would have a deep interest in these water issues.
Mike Jacobs is the publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.
Divided jurisdictions complicate political geography of Valley
FARGO – The geography of the Red River Basin, as water-weary residents know all too well, seems diabolically designed to flood.
The ancient glacial lakebed forming the Red River Valley is so flat that the river’s gradient as it winds its way north averages a drop of 2.37 feet per mile, a slope that diminishes to a mere 0.2 feet at the Canadian border.
If anything, the political geography is even more complicated, with three states, one Canadian province and two national governments to sort out jurisdiction.
The dual complexities of physical and political landscape have added to the difficulty of finding a consensus for long-term management of the feisty Red, especially in the controversial area of flood control.
But now, after a decade of study and deliberation, there is a comprehensive plan.
The advisory Red River Basin Commission has put forward a framework offering long-term flood solutions. The blueprint comes with a price tag of $4.6 billion, an estimate that includes $1.77 billion for a proposed diversion channel to protect Fargo-Moorhead. The plan assumes federal funding totaling almost $1.7 billion.
“This is really a 50-year plan,” says Lance Yohe, executive director of the Red River Basin Commission, acknowledging that it would take years and even decades to fully implement.
A significant portion of the plan is devoted to temporarily storing water to reduce the severity of flooding.
The plan calls for storing the equivalent of 1.5 million acre-feet of water south of the Canadian border to ensure a 20 percent reduction in peak flows – enough to reduce the 1997 flood in Fargo by 2 feet.
“That’s a target to move toward,” Yohe says. Once again, he acknowledges that it will take time to reach that goal.
If implemented, the comprehensive plan would prevent significant damage from flooding – between $10.2 billion and
$12.8 billion in the basin for a single 500-year flood.
The commission plan will be presented to the governors and legislatures of North Dakota and Minnesota for consideration.
It calls for increasing protection levels for Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks to 500-year floods, with 200-year flood protection recommended for many other communities, including Wahpeton-Breckenridge.
By comparison, Fargo and Moorhead lack protection against a 100-year flood, although both cities have plans to reach that goal in the near future, and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks has flood protection rated at 250-year floods.
The commission’s comprehensive plan comes a decade after the group was formed as a vehicle to forge a basinwide consensus for water management.
“There’s a lot more awareness of what’s going on in the basin,” Yohe says. “Some of that’s been driven by the floods.”
The plan is purely a recommendation, not binding, and will have to be taken up by lawmakers and governors.
Dan Wilkens of Fertile, Minn., a former chairman of the Red River Basin Commission and a veteran of water management in Minnesota, agrees with Yohe that implementation will take time to achieve.
“This is the local people, basically, speaking about what they see the needs are,” he says of the plan. “I think that’s what the legislators want. I’d be shocked to death if it wasn’t well-received. Of course, in the water world there are always surprises.”
Wilkens, who has managed Minnesota’s Sandhill water district, traces his involvement in water management to 1974 – just before the 1975 Red River flood triggered the “dike wars” between Minnesota and North Dakota.
In the years since, water officials throughout the basin have gotten to know each other and have shifted from confrontation to cooperation, he says.
“We’ve become friends,” Wilkens adds, “and friends don’t hurt friends. But there’s so many players. You’ll have to get money out of St. Paul and Bismarck, and you’ll need federal money, so now you have to convince the whole country.”
That’s an effort that’s apt to take decades. “You’re talking a huge, huge undertaking,” Wilkens says.
Patrick Springer reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.
Improved flood forecasting keeps cities ahead of the game
FARGO – You might say that hard-won wisdom acquired from fighting floods flows downstream.
That’s a way of saying the record 2009 Red River flood in Fargo drew upon lessons learned in the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks-East Grand Forks.
In turn, the lessons learned in Fargo in 2009 and 1997 helped Bismarck fight the historic 2011 Missouri River flood.
The Red River Valley, in fact, has become a veritable flood-fighting laboratory. Experience has stacked up like sandbags.
Take flood forecasting, which provides the essential intelligence for tactical flood fighters in the field.
Crest forecasts for the cantankerous Red River were significantly changed following the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks-East Grand Forks.
The changes are so significant that hydrologist Andrea Holz regards the forecasting reports that were the norm before that watershed event 15 years ago as from another era.
In the past, the weather service flood forecast consisted of two predicted flood crests – one assuming a spring melt with no further precipitation and another assuming normal precipitation.
Besides failing to account for above-normal precipitation – a common element of floods – the problem with the old forecasts was that officials and property owners tended to regard the two predictions as firm numbers.
In the case of the 1997 Grand Forks flood, the crest forecast range ran from 47.5 feet to 49 feet – well below the record peak of 54.35 feet.
Following that disaster, which flooded much of the city of Grand Forks and most of East Grand Forks, the weather service started using forecasts with a range of possible crests, each carrying a probability of occurring.
So-called “probabilistic forecasts,” which are issued before water starts moving and hydrologists can make an actual crest forecast, convey to the public the uncertainties that plague forecasters.
“In the olden days, which is what we call them now, it was just these two numbers, and people put a lot of stock in those two numbers,” Holz says.
“Now it’s 60 numbers,” she adds. That’s a reference to the 60 years of detailed flooding data built into Red River flood forecasts, reflecting the full range of recorded possibilities.
The switch to “probabilistic” forecasts gave flood fighters an early warning that a major flood was on its way. But the forecasts kept ratcheting up dramatically, and hydrologists since have been working to refine their predictions.
Now the weather service’s river forecast center has the ability to run a forecast model developed by the Army Corps of Engineers along with its own model.
That helps to provide a more detailed picture of how water flows over the landscape, better allowing flood fighters to pinpoint problem areas, Holz says.
Every flood is different, as the saying goes, and every flood provides a new set of lessons.
The jarring necessity of suddenly having to fight a record flood forces communities to identify vulnerable areas.
The Bismarck-Mandan area provides a case in point. The cities learned some lessons last summer when residents found themselves battling a record flood on the Missouri River.
Long accustomed to the protection provided by Garrison Dam, residents of areas that never had flooded since the dam was built in the 1950s suddenly had a flood battle on their hands.
Fargo officials lent a hand and shared their expertise.
The city sent sandbags as well as machines to make sandbags, and sent along public works staff to help operate the “spider” bagging machines, as well as provide advice about placement.
“Certainly that was a great assistance,” says Jeff Heintz, public works operations director for the city of Bismarck. “They’ve done it so many times in recent years they’ve really got it down.”
A consulting engineering firm is helping Bismarck to develop a flood-fighting plan. It will be ready in time for next spring, in case it’s needed.
“I think we have a good idea now where we’d have to move those resources in the future,” Heintz says.
One lesson Bismarck is learning from Fargo and Moorhead that it can apply to the next flood fight: It’s better to work together, as neighbors, on mutual flood protection rather than erecting individual defenses.
“I think the people in Bismarck are seeing that,” Heintz says. That was a lesson two of his own children, who attended college in Fargo and Moorhead, brought home.
Bismarck learned other lessons as well, such as making sure that storm sewer outlets are covered to prevent floodwater from backing up into the city.
“The guys who came out from Fargo were a lot of help,” Heintz says. “If this ever happens again, we’ll be able to provide a lot more confidence for residents.”
Public safety and emergency management officials all follow the same protocols for managing disasters.
The system originated in California, where firefighters had to battle major wildfires, and was extended to fighting tornadoes, hurricanes, blizzards and floods, Greg Gust, a weather service meteorologist says.
In the same fashion, other areas of North Dakota and Minnesota have looked to the Red River Valley for advice and models in fighting floods, he says.
“In a practical sense, it’s real people having real experience,” Gust adds. “The result is, they know who to call for help.”
Long-term probabilistic forecasts aren’t yet available for the Missouri River, but hydrologists are working on making them available, probably between 2015 and 2020.
The project is intricate because it involves getting a better handle on inflows to the six dam reservoirs, and taking into account complex dam operations.
Fargo-Moorhead has all sorts of flood-fighting experience but still is working to improve its protection. The cities are working to build defenses for a 100-year flood as interim protection against the 500-year solution a diversion channel would provide.
“The thing that keeps lurking out there is having a flood level that would exceed the 2009 flood,” says Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. “That would be very, very difficult. But that’s where we’re trying to get.”
One of the biggest lessons comes from watching the devastation that occurs in places that lose a flood fight.
Grand Forks-East Grand Forks took years to rebound from the 1997 flood, and Minot will take years to recuperate, Gust says.
“Certainly they learned that you don’t want to lose the fight,” he adds. “The human impact, the economic impact – it takes a long time to recover.”
Patrick Springer reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.