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Published May 21 2009

Forum editorial: Flood plan is a good start, but ...

Initial reaction to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood protection project for Fargo-Moorhead appears to be positive, but muted. Indeed, the corps’ proposal – and at this point that’s all it is – has the earmarks of traditional corps projects: levees and diversions. It’s likely such an approach would protect the metro area from floods on the Red River and its tributaries. But the proposed components of the plan do not speak to comprehensive watershed management. That is, managing water before it reaches rivers and explodes into record floods.

No project can prevent a flood. Winter and spring weather conditions determine the extent and duration of floods. The floods of 2009 were caused by record snowfall in the Red River Basin, the pattern of the spring rains and snowmelt, and the saturation of the ground at freeze-up in 2008. A perfect storm of those factors generated one of the most widespread and most damaging flood events in modern times.

Flood works can’t alter weather. They can, however, manage a flood and protect property. They also, unfortunately, often protect property by moving floodwaters downstream via diversions or levees along rivers, thus putting downstream properties at greater risk. For example, Fargo city officials grumbled privately that they believe the new diversion that protects Breckenridge, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D., aggravated flooding on the Red as far north as Fargo-Moorhead.

The corps’ plan for the metro area is a work in progress. It appears to hold a positive cost-benefit ratio. It has components that likely would work as the corps envisions. After all, no organization on the planet is better at building levees, dams and diversions.

That being said, a broader watershed management priority must be part of long-term flood mitigation in the Red River Valley. More immediate flood protection systems, including a modified southside Fargo project, must proceed, but only in the context of a basinwide program to manage field runoff and the Red’s tributaries. At this point, watershed management is not part of the corps’ mandate. Until that element is factored into the basin’s flood equation, flood control will remain elusive.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.