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.