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Patrick Springer, Published October 25 2010

Slowing the flow: North Ottawa project could be model for retention plans

TINTAH, Minn. – The North Ottawa Impoundment Project looks more like an unassuming pond surrounded by corn and soybean fields than a means to tame mighty Red River floods.

But the shallow pool in the Rabbit River watershed 25 miles southeast of Wahpeton-Breckenridge can hold enough water to equal more than 4 inches of runoff during a flood.

Last year, in its first year of operation, North Ottawa’s dikes held 5,700 acre-feet of water. Now complete, it can hold almost three times that volume, 16,000 acre-feet.

North Ottawa, toured last week by a delegation of officials seeking flood solutions, offers an example of the relatively modest projects that can ease flooding along the Red River by holding water along its tributaries.

Many officials agree: The Red River Valley needs more projects like North Ottawa to achieve comprehensive flood control. Lots more.

The Red River Basin Commission aims to identify water retention projects capable of together storing 1 million acre-feet – enough to reduce flows on the Red by 20 percent.

That goal, if met, means the levees protecting Grand Forks at the time of the devastating 1997 flood would have kept the city dry.

The ambitious goal got a boost when Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., pledged earlier this year to use conservation programs in the next farm bill to allocate $500 million over 10 years to aid water retention for Red River flood control.

“I think I can make that happen,” Peterson told a delegation of officials who earlier this month toured water retention projects and potential sites as they viewed North Ottawa.

“We can get a lot of things like this up and down the valley,” he said. “It’ll make a big difference.”

If Peterson succeeds, local and state governments would have to come up with $500 million in matching funds.

Also, on the North Dakota side of the river, many water resource districts have doubled their property tax levies and collectively will be able to generate $1.8 million a year for water projects.

Besides funding, other obstacles must be overcome to significantly increase water retention projects in the valley, which could augment a large diversion channel proposed to protect Fargo-Moorhead.

North Ottawa, which to date has cost $15 million, with a final phase with conservation enhancements still unfinished, serves as an example of both the hurdles and the potential water projects encounter.

The project, which covers three square miles, took 15 years to complete but was done without resorting to adversarial eminent domain proceedings to secure land.

Officials hope to streamline the permit process – with the goal of reducing it to three or four years – to speed up flood control projects, which routinely take at least a decade for approval.

Now that farmers have seen the benefits of projects that help keep water off their fields and have seen neighbors reach satisfactory agreements to sell land for projects, future agreements might be easier to strike, officials said.

North Ottawa, a project of the Bois de Sioux Watershed District, can serve as a guide for other areas of the valley, Peterson said. The district has identified projects that, if built, would reduce flows from its watershed by the targeted 20 percent – all of them upstream of Fargo-Moorhead.

“All the watersheds should come down here and study how it was done,” he said. Noting the region suffers from repeated serious flooding, Peterson added: “We’ve got to start getting this stuff done.”

In meetings around the basin, officials have noted that farmers whose low-lying fields often flood are becoming more open to the idea of selling land or signing easements for projects.

That was the case in acquiring land for the Manston Slough restoration, west of Rothsay, Minn., in Wilkin County, within the watershed of the south branch of the Buffalo River.

The $4 million project encompasses about six square miles and will be able to hold 5,440 acre-feet of water. The project also will create a wetland complex – excellent waterfowl habitat – of more than 1,100 acres.

“The work doesn’t stop here,” said Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District. “We have plans to look at the entire 26-square-mile district.”

Lance Yohe, executive director of the Red River Basin Commission, is optimistic that his group will be able to identify projects capable of storing the targeted 1 million acre-feet, reducing flows on the Red by one-fifth.

“Right now there’s a gut feeling that we’ll find sites that can go even higher than 20 percent,” he said.

Both the Sheyenne and Wild Rice River watersheds in North Dakota, for instance, have ravines and valleys that have large storage potential.

For example, officials have identified a site in Richland County along the Wild Rice that could hold 50,000 acre-feet, a project that would be almost as large as the Maple River Dam, which can hold 60,000 acre-feet, if built.

But Yohe cautioned that large projects are difficult to build, requiring large sums of money and “buy in” from landowners.

Peterson’s goal of securing federal funding of $500,000 over 10 years, if met, would require state and local governments each to match that sum.

It’s optimistic, in Yohe’s view, that local and state funds could be raised in 10 years. Recognizing that, officials hope any federal funds would remain available for more than 10 years.

Local, state and federal officials are working on a diversion with a price tag of about $1.4 billion, but the project is controversial, and an environmental review has been delayed.

“I don’t think it’s realistic that retention alone is going to solve the Fargo-Moorhead dilemma,” Yohe said, adding that a diversion as well as levees also should be considered. “To me, a diversion is one of those options that have to be looked at.”

Any diversion, however, must not impose downstream impacts – a problem retention projects could help mitigate.

The Red River Basin Commission will present its initial findings to the North Dakota and Minnesota legislatures this January, with a final report due in June.

“How do we work on this thing so that we all win?” Yohe said. “That’s the bottom-line question for me.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522