Midwesterners hope to find cash for flood fixes
Friday, April 3rd 2009, 5:34 pm
By: News 9
FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Still soggy from surging floodwaters, weary residents and elected officials in the Midwest already are clamoring to bulk up the region's patchwork flood control system -- hoping that they won't be so dependent on sandbags and sweat the next time around.
Among the projects being pushed are a massive diversion to steer the Red River around populated areas, taller and more extensive dikes and water retention gates scattered across thousands of square miles of farmland.
But tight economic times could sink the most promising solutions. The price tag on projects in the Fargo area alone could hit $2 billion, and most are unlikely to qualify for federal stimulus money because details of the projects have not been worked out. Also, critics of floodwalls point to Hurricane Katrina's failed levees and overtopped dikes in Grand Forks, N.D., in 1997 as evidence that dikes alone will never be enough.
Grand Forks has since raised its dikes, sparing the city so far, but researchers point to evidence of historical floods that would have topped even those defenses.
Public officials said now is the time to get new projects moving -- before the nation's attention moves on from the region's latest woes.
"The memory is not very long," said Paul Todhunter, a University of North Dakota geology professor.
Even as officials weigh their options, Fargo is already staring down a second potentially dangerous crest this month. The National Weather Service on Friday gave a 75 percent chance the Red would hit 41 feet or more. Sandbag dikes in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., are being left in place at 43 feet.
"This is enough. We need to get ahead of this so it doesn't happen again," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat representing parts of the Red River basin.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Friday they would press the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish a study of Red River flood protection earlier than December 2010.
Aaron Snyder, a Corps project manager, said it would be difficult to speed up an already aggressive schedule.
The Corps is due to release a preliminary flood control proposal next month that looks at a diversion project for the Red River in combination with levees. The final cost could range from $800 million to $2 billion, Snyder said.
Snyder declined to offer specifics, but said the proposal would be limited to the area around Fargo and Moorhead -- a small piece of a 45,000-square-mile river basin that stretches from South Dakota to Manitoba. The pancake-flat, clay basin is slow to soak up water -- making it exceptionally flood-prone.
In outlying communities within the basin, some residents worry they'll be left out if the Corps adopts a dikes-only approach centered on metropolitan Fargo.
In Briarwood, a hamlet just south of Fargo's city limits, 18 of 27 homes took on water during the recent flooding. John Adams, 62, a developer who stayed behind to fight the rising waters, said even more houses would have been swamped if not for round-the-clock sandbagging by a handful of homeowners.
"For 12 years we've been having a debate about diversions or dikes," Adams said. "You know what they say about what kind of dikes are out there? The ones that have failed and the ones that are going to fail."
Snyder said a dikes-only plan was possible but a combination plan was more likely.
After the region's last catastrophic flood season, in the spring of 1997, more than a billion dollars were spent on efforts to tame the river. That included more than $400 million for new flood walls in Grand Forks and $665 million for a diversion canal in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to steer floodwaters around the city of 650,000.
Copying either of those projects could prove difficult for Fargo and Moorhead. Building Grand Forks' floodwalls required the taking of 800 residential properties.
Most of the seized Grand Forks properties had been severely damaged in the 1997 flood, but riverfront property in Fargo and Moorhead generally suffered less damage -- meaning homeowners could be reluctant to leave.
"Many of the people have money and influence. They're not going to roll over and play dead," UND's Todhunter said.
Similarly, a diversion would require the taking of agricultural land in an area that boasts some of the most expensive farmland in the world. Other diversions have caused problems with water that stacks up where it rejoins the main stem of a river, a potential threat to surrounding communities.
One basin-wide idea receiving attention is a proposal out of the UND known as the "Waffle Plan."
It calls for using roads in rural areas as makeshift dikes during the spring snowmelt. Gates installed on culverts that pass underneath the roads could be closed when rivers start to swell -- effectively turning sections of land into retaining ponds until the flooding threat recedes and the water can be released.
Gerry Groenewold, director of UND's Energy and Environmental Research Center, said the upfront costs would be about $50 million. However, tens of millions more might be needed to pay farmers some kind of rent to allow water to sit on their land during flood season.
That compares with an estimated $100 million in damages from this year's floods and Grand Forks' staggering $1.5 billion toll from the 1997 flood.
"They're so accustomed to dikes, they don't want change," Groenewold said of opponents to his plan. "As my father used to say, the only person who likes a change is a wet baby."