When Fargo wanted to divert water

Drainage Ditch 27 runs parallel to 40th Avenue South in Fargo as Interstate 29 cuts through the middle of the frame in this aerial photo looking west. Michael Vosburg / Forum Communications Co.

Kristen M. Daum - The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead

Diversion hasn’t always suggested a detour

FARGO – In Fargo today, the phrase “Sheyenne diversion” is associated with flood protection.

Several decades ago, it referred to a different channel with an opposite purpose: to funnel river water toward the city to meet growing residential and commercial needs. The challenge then was the lack of water, and tapping the Sheyenne River was the city’s prime solution.

Severe drought in the 1930s prompted an acute awareness of water supply.

Official discussion began in late 1949 about building a dam and ditch to divert the Sheyenne toward Fargo. By then, Fargo had already paid $150,000 toward construction of the Baldhill Dam north of Valley City, giving the city 52 percent of the rights to access Lake Ashtabula’s water in times of drought.

Fargo Water Commissioner Fred Hagen later said, “That investment will do us no good” without some method to funnel Sheyenne River water five miles east directly to Fargo.

The Sheyenne River naturally flows into the Red River near Harwood, north of Fargo. But city leaders wanted to build a water control project southwest of Fargo to connect the two rivers nearer to the city, providing easier access to a stable water supply.

After years of discussion, the need for a Sheyenne diversion became more urgent in the late 1950s.

Fargo engineers and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers formulated plans to build a concrete conduit to funnel Sheyenne River water into a ditch near what is now Horace. The ditch would lead to Cass County Drain 27 and ultimately Rose Coulee. From there, the water would empty into the Red River at a location then still two miles south of Fargo, where 40th Avenue South runs today.
The diversion was intended to carry as many as 37.5 million gallons of water toward Fargo each day.

The project stalled in 1967 after Army Corps of Engineers officials told Fargo leaders that they planned to make a basinwide study of the Red River and its tributaries, potentially rendering the Sheyenne diversion canal unnecessary.
A dry spell in summer 1970 was another wake-up call for the Fargo region, speeding up consideration of the Sheyenne project.

“For days, the river between Fargo and Moorhead was only a trickle,” The Forum newspaper reported. “Red River waters were depleted to their lowest point since the dust bowl days of the 1930s.”
In April 1971, Fargo’s inclusion in the Southeast Cass County Water Management District cleared the final administrative hurdle for the decades-old plans for a Sheyenne diversion to become reality.

Revised plans called for a 400-foot canal starting at the Sheyenne River in Horace that would run east along Cass County Road 6 until it met up with Drain 27 southwest of Fargo. Drain 27 and Rose Coulee would usher the water the rest of the way to the Red River south of Fargo, but the canal would only be used for “emergency water supply” when the Red River ran low.

At the project’s groundbreaking in October 1971, Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz said the canal would “have the effect of more than doubling the amount of water for the city of Fargo in critical times.”

One year later, the $500,000 project was complete, but it wouldn’t be needed for a few more years.

Drought conditions re-emerged in 1976 when flows on the Red and the Otter Tail ran low.

“Fargo-Moorhead residents will soon get their first taste of Sheyenne River water,” a Forum article in August 1976 stated.

Fargo engineers, in cooperation with the corps, activated the intake and pumping station on the Sheyenne River near Horace, meeting Fargo’s need for water. The canal remained in use for 10 months, as drought conditions continued into the summer of 1977.

The canal has only been needed twice since – in 1984 and 1988 – according to the city of Fargo.

The wet period of the past two decades has given Fargo an abundance of water and made dormant the once-desperately needed water supply project for North Dakota’s largest city.

Kristen M. Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.