FARGO, N.D. — The Red River Valley's battle with major flooding for the second straight year has intensified the push for a solution that doesn't rely on thousands of volunteers and millions of sandbags.
Local governments say the best option is a massive 36-mile-long channel but the project's $1.3 billion cost and long construction timetable means that spring flooding is likely to remain a headache for another decade.
"I don't think Fargo wants to keep having national news about how it's flooding every year," said Russ Richards, who needed 12,000 sandbags to protect his home last year and built a plywood wall this year to shield it from waters.
"It's also just the stress on people. We need to get it fixed."
The Red River crested Sunday at just under 19 feet over flood stage. The flooding didn't cause any major damage this year — partly thanks to the more than 1.5 million sandbags stacked along the river — but it still submerged farm fields, parks and back yards. Water surrounded some homes in rural areas.
As the river was still on the rise last week, a task force of officials on both sides of the North Dakota-Minnesota border settled on the diversion channel as their preferred solution to protect a metro area of 200,000 people.
"I think we have been very cohesive," Fargo city commissioner Brad Wimmer said of the various governments. "But we haven't written any checks yet. It's not a done deal."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will manage the final project, said the federal government would cover $565 million of the costs, leaving state and local governments to pay about $735 million. The spirit is there, especially since local governments are already dealing with the costs of flooding. The city of Fargo alone has spent nearly $31 million for flood fighting and cleanup since 1997, including an estimated $3 million this year, Fargo finance director Kent Costin said.
N.D. has money, but not all onboard
But with such an expensive project, the quibbling has already started. Supporters of the project will be asking for money from one state (Minnesota) that is broke and another state (North Dakota) that has a billion-dollar surplus.
The diversion has set off a debate in North Dakota because despite having extra money, a traditional divide between rural and urban lawmakers makes approving its funding not quite a done deal.
"We have to make it sellable to everybody across the state," said North Dakota state Sen. Tim Flakoll, R-Fargo.
Many North Dakota lawmakers are thrifty and hesitant to spend the surplus for fears it will run out. Some are also resistant to spending so much money on a single project that benefits only Fargo, the state's largest city.
State Sen. Bill Bowman, a Republican who represents six rural counties in the far western part of the state, said lawmakers are sympathetic to Fargo's dilemma but they would have to cut back other programs like education.
North Dakota is prepared to pay a bigger share than Minnesota for the diversion because Fargo is three times as big as Moorhead. But Gov. John Hoeven wants to see more — $200 million — from his next-door neighbors, a number Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty says he can't promise.
"There's going to be a negotiation between Minnesota and North Dakota about who pays what that will unfold over the next few months," Pawlenty said. "We'll get it worked out."
The 36-mile channel involves considerably more than just digging a big ditch, with some tricky engineering challenges that help explain why construction is expected to take nearly a decade.
'Extremely large culverts' needed
As the channel splits from the river's main path and angles west of the city, it would cross three larger and two smaller tributaries.
It would pass underneath the Sheyenne and Maple rivers through some "extremely large culverts" while open channels — basically aqueducts — would carry the normal flows of those rivers above, said Aaron Snyder, a project manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, Minn. Another smaller river, the Wild Rice, would also require its own structure over the channel.
Upstream, a span resembling a highway bridge would have gates that would be lowered during high water to make the diversion.
Construction alone would take 8½ years, and that's just from when the corps gets funding and starts digging. More time will be needed to acquire some 6,500 acres of land, line up funding and take care of other pre-construction needs, Snyder said.
It wouldn't be the first flood channel on the north-flowing Red. A huge diversion project downstream in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has worked very well, engineers say.
Winnipeg's Red River Floodway is nicknamed "Duff's Ditch" for Dufferin Roblin, the premier of Manitoba when the project was built in the 1960s, following the Great Flood of 1950. The 30-mile channel is credited with sparing Winnipeg billions of dollars in flood damage in the many times it's been used since 1969.
Thanks to Duff's Ditch, Winnipeg came out unscathed in the 1997 flood that wiped out the downtowns of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn.
Those cities built $400 million worth of levees, flood walls and pump stations after that flood. It has worked, but the East Grand Forks mayor says he wishes he had pushed for a diversion.
Fargo officials say any plan other than the diversion wouldn't offer the protection its citizens want.
"That is a movement of historic proportions," said Darrell Vanyo, Cass County commissioner. "But it is only historic if we reach completion."
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