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Charon Johnson, Published June 14 2009

Time to end the fightin’

‘Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’!” Mark Twain proclaimed years ago. Events like this spring’s record flooding can throw everything into turmoil, and complicate all reasoning.

The Red River Valley continues to have events that could be compared to a heart condition in human beings. It responds to treatment such as bypasses, but continues to flare up periodically. The Devils Lake situation is like a cancer that continues to spread, and no one can agree on the proper treatment, so consequently we pray for an act of God to send it into remission. Many opinions are offered, but there is no realistic quick fix.

Flood control and water management are not necessarily synonymous. If enough money is thrown at river flooding, local damage can be mitigated by use of levees, ditches, etc., but doesn’t resolve downstream and upstream effects.

Water management is more complicated. Countless hours have been spent on countless studies that have ended up on countless shelves gathering dust, and the beat goes on. It is counterproductive to spend more time fixing blame, than fixing the problem.

Water does not respect artificial boundaries, thus it needs to be managed basinwide. However, even within a basin, there are competing and diverse issues to deal with. There is no simple solution such as arbitrarily plugging drains, or draining down Devils Lake. There are, however, opportunities to moderate flows.

One obstacle is working through government policies. The federal government, which is looked to for funding and expertise, has established procedures that hinder the efforts. Legislation is passed by Congress to address problems. Bureaucrats who have little sensitivity to the issues, or have their own prejudices, are responsible for drafting the rules and regulations. The resulting policies, even if well intentioned, are akin to a doctor prescribing the same medication for all patients whether they have heart problems, cancer, the flu or an ingrown toenail. A way must be found to individualize the treatment.

What works in one area will not necessarily work in another, because terrains and soils differ dramatically, state to state, county to county, township to township, and even farm field to farm field. There is no “one plan fits all.” A variety of options must be explored so that the most effective management practices can be established for each situation.

There are field trials and prototype projects such as the “Waffle Plan” and others that have been researched in the past that should be revisited. There are success stories that can be refined and used elsewhere. There are opportunities for joint ventures involving various affected interests that could provide multiple benefits.

Paranoia, prejudice and politics have complicated the process. Local ingenuity needs to be encouraged and implemented.

If government’s agencies would provide oversight, expertise and cost sharing, and facilitate rather than dictate, effective water management could be achieved. How unique would that be? A few success stories could hasten the process. To try something different is to risk failure, but not to try guarantees failure.

If the current tactics aren’t changed, the “fightin’ ” will continue, and years from now the same battles will be waged.


Johnson farmed in DeGroat and Chain Lakes townships, Ramsey County, N.D., on land homesteaded by his great grandfather in 1883. He served on local water boards, the Devils Lake Basin Water Management District (as first chairman), the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District (communications and cooperation with other water agencies), and retired to Mesa, Ariz., in 1995.