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Published March 31 2010

Forum editorial: No magic solution in water storage

Red River Valley residents who are worried about the downstream impacts of a Fargo-Moorhead diversion channel apparently believe water storage on the land is the better option. It’s not because of the valley’s geography. It’s not because flood control history in the valley confirms the extreme difficulty of building even modest dams and reservoirs.

That’s not to say water management precludes storage. But the culture of land use in the valley is a saga of ditching and draining, not retention. There are a handful of sites in the watershed that might be suitable for impoundments. They should be investigated and possibly secured as elements of an overall basin water management strategy, but not as the strategy.

Monday’s story about storage by Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki underscored the problems with finding sites and constructing water storage features in the flat, heavy-soil Red River Valley. The Horace-West Fargo Diversion, for example, always included upstream water storage to mitigate downstream impacts of the channel. But it took more than a decade to complete a 5-foot raise at Baldhill Dam on the Sheyenne River and longer to finish Maple River Dam. Even with that increased capacity to hold water, flooding along the Sheyenne River was severe in 2009 and this year.

The Maple River Dam was embroiled in legal tangles for years. Another dam project that would have alleviated flooding in the watershed, the Kindred Dam, was never built in part because of local opposition, environmental concerns and funding hurdles.

In other words, saying the valley needs water storage impoundments is easier than getting it done. Concluding storage will end downstream flooding, either from a river or a diversion, does not square with dams already in place.

To be sure, impoundments have some flood-mitigating effects. Maple River Dam, for example, is credited with taking a few inches off water levels in some downstream reaches. But the capacity behind existing dams and potential storage in one other identified impoundment location on the Wild Rice River are, literally, drops in the bucket in a major flood.

Maybe more can be done to hold water on the land. The effort to find suitable sites for dams and impoundments should be accelerated. But the primary focus must remain on a North Dakota diversion, which will protect Fargo, Moorhead and environs from a record flood.

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