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.