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.