Sometimes the river retreats, leaving its cities to scramble
FARGO – When it surges beyond its banks and clashes with levies and sandbag walls, the headlines call the Red a “river on the rampage.” But for a few drought-baked months in the 1930s, it was a river in retreat, dwindling to a trickle and for a stretch coming to a halt altogether.
Fish were trapped in scattered pools. Pedestrians crossed between Fargo and Moorhead via planks set in the mud.
Water scarcity defined weekly routines.
It may seem like a foreign concept for a region that’s been besieged by wet weather for nearly two decades, but it’s only a matter of time before it happens again.
Droughts like those that devastated America’s heartland in the “Dirty Thirties” are not at all unusual for the region. And one study determined a repeat could strike before 2050.
Officials in the region say that could be harder on the region than the record floods of recent years.
“It’s always been a question of, do we have too much water or not enough?” said Pat Zavoral, Fargo city administrator. “We have to give equal time to not only our flood protection but also what happens if we don’t have adequate water.
With that in mind, Red River Valley communities have long been trying without success to line up a supplemental water supply.
Before the 1997 flood, water supply was a bigger concern than flood control in Fargo. A severe drought in 1988 that slowed the Red to a crawl – after another in 1976 that halted the river altogether – had officials thinking about backup plans.
Flooding swept those efforts to the back burner but didn’t stop them completely. The Lake Agassiz Water Authority, a consortium of local governments in 13 Red River Valley counties, has been working since 2003 to solve the water supply problem.
The preferred solution: a $660 million project that would use a canal and pipeline to divert Missouri River water to the Sheyenne River.
The proposal has the state’s backing and has been endorsed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. But it’s been stalled since 2007, stymied by the federal budget crisis and bureaucratic inertia.
A dam, a plan, a canal
The Red River Valley Water Supply Project, as the proposal is officially called, is an offshoot of the now-defunct Garrison Diversion Project, which has its origins in the 1944 law that authorized Garrison Dam and other dams on the Missouri River.
“That’s one item that’s been on North Dakota’s agenda since the dams were constructed,” said Dave Koland, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is administering the water supply project.
Actually, North Dakota has eyed diverting the Missouri eastward even longer – since it became a state in 1889.
The Garrison Diversion Project was designed to divert water from the Missouri to central and eastern North Dakota for a number of uses, including irrigation, water supply, and fish and wildlife conservation.
Work on the project started in the 1960s. It stalled in the face of disputes and environmental opposition, and was abandoned altogether in 2000.
But a few key components were completed. The new water supply project would use two of those components: the Snake Creek Pumping Plant on the east side of Lake Sakakawea and the McClusky Canal, which loops east from Lake Audubon.
The project would pump water out of Lake Sakakawea, bringing it 59 miles east in the canal, then another 123 miles via underground pipeline to Lake Ashtabula on the Sheyenne River.
The lake, which is already the backup source for Fargo and other cities, would serve as a reservoir for participating cities to draw on in dry times.
“It’s an insurance policy,” said Hazel Sletten, superintendent for water utilities in Grand Forks.
Worse than a flood
Sletten remembers the 1988 drought well. Grand Forks had just expanded the capacity of its water treatment plant to 16.5 million gallons per day, but pushed the plant to treat 17.5 million – all while the city was using 22 million a day.
Given the city’s growth since then, a shortage could affect critical operations ranging from industrial users to firefighting services, she said.
Grand Forks has about 3,500 more residents today than it did during the last drought.
“You don’t want to be running 100 percent every day for an extended period of time,” she said. “You’re right on the edge.”
A prolonged, major drought, she said, “would be worse” than a flood.
It would be even more of a strain on Fargo, which has about 22,000 more residents than it did during the 1988 drought. Moorhead has about 6,000 more.
For Fargo, which draws all of its water from the Red, a drought of the magnitude of the 1930s would mean hauling in about 1,200 truckloads of water every day to meet basic needs, according to one study.
Zavoral, the Fargo city administrator, said the city has kept the possibility of a drought in mind even as flood protection has dominated the conversation.
“There’s an awareness that at any time, we could have to shift,” he said, pointing to last year’s dry fall and early winter. “We have to give equal time to not only our flood protection but also what happens if we don’t have enough water.”
But a solution like the proposed Missouri transfer won’t materialize overnight. Even if everything fell into place tomorrow, Zavoral said, it would take about four years to complete.
“We couldn’t wait four years if the Red River were to run dry,” he said.
And everything has not yet fallen into place.
In some respects, the project has moved along. Federal, state and local governments have spent about $26 million so far in developing the project, including an environmental impact statement, engineering studies and right-of-way acquisition. More than three-fourths of the right-of-way easements for the pipeline have been obtained.
Officials won’t go further until the project gets the go-ahead from federal officials.
The federal government has yet to issue a critical document called the record of decision. Initially, North Dakota officials were told the obstacle was the Bush administration’s Office of Management and Budget, which blanched at the project’s $660 million price tag.
At the outset, state and local officials thought the extensive environmental impact study, completed in December 2007, would be the biggest hurdle.
Canada and Minnesota have for years opposed the transfer of Missouri River water to the Red River watershed, fearing transfer of non-native invasive species. The review concluded that water from the Missouri River and transferred to the Red River, would not spread organisms if filtered and treated.
But new obstacles have arisen – the federal budget crunch, and the prospect that any project would have to win congressional authorization.
Plans called for the $660 million cost to be divided roughly equally between the federal government, state and local governments, or $220 million at each level.
Then-Gov. John Hoeven pledged to work to provide the state’s share. The city of Fargo, the biggest user, would pay about half of the local share, and would use about half of the water.
The federal contribution, however, has collided with a ballooning federal deficit and a renewed push for budget austerity. In 2009, then-Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., warned state and local officials that he could not press for both the water supply project and the proposed $1.7 billion metro diversion project.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the choice put the city “between a rock and a hard place,” but permanent flood protection emerged as the consensus top choice.
Going it alone
That left the state and water authority to mull trying to go forward with the project without federal help.
“We’re thinking, are there other ways to do this?” Zavoral said. He said the city is working with Garrison Diversion and the governor’s office to come up with a workable plan.
The project’s backers have weighed alternatives such as groundwater from the Red River Basin or from Minnesota.
Koland of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District said those options are hampered by a lack of quality groundwater in the region and high costs of treatment.
The Dakota Sandstone aquifer north of Fargo, for instance, was considered as a source. But the cost of treating the aquifer’s water pushed that option’s total estimated cost to $1.1 billion.
“We’re going to go back and look at these things,” Koland said. “Did we look at everything? Is there new information?”
However, based on earlier studies, “I think we will find most of these other options are cost-prohibitive,” he said.
At minimum, state and local officials believe the federal government should at least pay the estimated $120 million cost for a treatment plant.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to ask Congress to fund that project,” Bruce Furness, former Fargo mayor and chairman of the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, said of the treatment plant.
He said the plant is needed to meet boundary water treaty obligations the U.S. government has with Canada.
The project is also trying to cut through a catch-22 of red tape: The Bureau of Reclamation maintains it needs congressional authorization to use Missouri River water, for a project that doesn’t yet have the administration’s final OK.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in December 2010 that it wants to charge a storage fee for water taken from Lake Sakakawea.
The state of North Dakota opposes the charge, insisting the water it proposes to draw for water supply uses is from the Missouri River’s natural flows, which state officials assert North Dakota has a legal right to use without charge.
And the project must remain affordable for water users in Fargo, rural Cass County, Grand Forks and elsewhere in the valley – who, in the case of Fargo and Cass County, might also have to help pay for the $1.7 billion diversion channel.
“Are they going to have enough for this project?” Furness asked. “It’s really up in the air at this point.”
Amid the questions without answers, one thing is certain, Furness said:
“We’ll have another drought at some point.”
Marino Eccher and Patrick Springer report for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.