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Published July 07 2010

Flooding: Cooperation called vital to water storage proposal

Adding enough water storage in the Red River Valley to significantly reduce flooding will take “dozens, perhaps hundreds” of small, local projects, said the head of the agency that would oversee the funds for such projects.

“What you’re talking about is a community effort on a grand scale, and everyone would have to chip in some,” Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Dave White said during a stop in Fargo-Moorhead on Tuesday.

Or, as U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., put it: “Everybody’s got to take some of this pain.”

Watershed leaders from Minnesota and North Dakota began digging through the federal government’s toolbox on Tuesday to see what’s available to fix the valley’s flooding problems by boosting water storage.

The meeting at Moorhead’s Courtyard by Mariott was the first step in what’s expected to be a yearlong process of identifying how best to accomplish the goal of keeping 1 million acre-feet of water out of the Red River during peak flood periods.

Leading the charge is Peterson, who hopes to secure $500 million for flood control projects when work begins on the federal farm bill next summer. The current bill expires in 2012.

Peterson, citing his position as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, expressed optimism that the money – $50 million a year for 10 years – will make it into the farm bill as a mandatory program.

“I have told my committee members, we’re going to do this or there isn’t going to be a farm bill,” he told The Forum’s editorial board. He noted that fellow Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., also sits on the committee, and the idea has the backing of Senate Agriculture Committee members Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.

There is precedent: The 2008 farm bill included similar funding to address water quality in Chesapeake Bay, and the 2002 bill provided more than $100 million to help conserve water for drought-stricken farms and ranches in Oregon’s Klamath Basin.

“I believe, without question, we have a national priority area here,” that warrants inclusion in the farm bill, Pomeroy said during a press conference with Peterson and White.

A mechanism for managing the projects was finalized Tuesday with the signing of a joint powers agreement between Minnesota’s Red River Watershed Management Board and North Dakota’s Red River Joint Water Resource District.

Peterson and White said the projects could vary widely, from restoring wetlands and holding water on fields via the “waffle plan” to storing water under fields by installing control structures on farmers’ drain tile outlets.

All options are on the table, Peterson said, including his controversial proposal to hold back water in Minnesota’s lakes country.

“Most of the people that live on these lakes are from Fargo-Moorhead, or Wahpeton-Breckenridge or Grand Forks, and they need to be part of the solution,” he said. “I mean, you can’t just say it’s going to be the farmers (who) are going to do it.”

The two states and watersheds would have to match the federal funds, which Peterson believes is “doable.”

Peterson said the total funding of $1 billion would be enough to establish 1 million acre-feet of storage and mitigate the effects of a proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion on downstream residents.

Roughly 200,000 to 250,000 acre-feet of storage would be upstream from Fargo-Moorhead, said Charlie Anderson of JOR Engineering in Alexandria, Minn., which has studied potential storage sites in the valley. During the 1997 flood, that would have lowered the river level by about 2 feet in the metro area and by about 1 foot in Halstad, Minn., he said.

Jerome Deal, chairman of the Bois de Sioux Watershed District, said large storage projects such as its 17,000-acre-feet North Ottawa impoundment project may be too big to qualify under current NRCS guidelines, so program changes may be needed.

But he’s excited about the prospect of federal funding for retention projects.

“That would be absolutely great. I mean, we’re going to be able to progress on these and have more under construction at the same time,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528