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Published January 14 2011

Cass water group rejects waffle pilot project

The Cass County Joint Water Resource District has rejected a proposed test run of the “waffle” plan for regional flood control after a State Water Commission review found “far-reaching” problems with the plan’s hydraulic modeling.

The district was approached last May by the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, which developed the waffle plan, and a Fargo-based water management consultant about doing a waffle pilot project.

The waffle plan calls for upgrading existing roads with new culvert gates and standpipes to hold water in farm fields – the way waffle ridges hold syrup – to slow flows into the Red River and its tributaries.

District Chairman Tom Fischer asked for an independent state review of the waffle plan after the district’s own engineer, Moore Engineering of West Fargo, found problems with its hydraulic modeling of the Red River and tributaries upstream of Cass County.

Water commission staff concurred with Moore’s findings, according to a letter to Fischer from State Engineer Todd Sando.

“The discrepancies they noted do exist, and there seems to be no explanation for them other than error,” Sando wrote. “Furthermore, these problems are far-reaching and not simple to remedy. An extensive revision of the hydraulic analyses would be required before the overall project could be properly evaluated.”

Commission staff met with EERC’s waffle project manager, Bethany Kurz, who acknowledged the modeling problems and “concurred that redoing the hydraulics is the only measure that seems appropriate at this point,” Sando’s letter stated.

Kurz is on extended leave and unavailable for comment, EERC spokesman Derek Walters said.

In a statement e-mailed to The Forum, the EERC said its waffle-related efforts were peer-reviewed by “highly respected, highly qualified individuals in relevant federal, state and local entities.”

The modeling efforts “reflected our best efforts to history-match previously observed river stages,” the EERC’s statement reads.

“It is apparent, at this time, that substantial discrepancies exist and that may, in certain isolated instances, overestimate flood stage reductions associated with certain waffle storage scenarios,” the statement reads.

The EERC has estimated that if the plan had been in place in 1997, it would have reduced the Red River crest by 3.5 feet in Fargo and 5 feet in Grand Forks.

Jeffry Volk of Moore Engineering has disputed those estimates.

“The way the models were utilized grossly overestimates the benefits, and that’s been our concern from the beginning,” he said. “We’ve always questioned the ability for that type of a plan to be a significant flood control solution for the Red River.”

Fischer told Kurz in a Dec. 29 letter that given the state review’s findings, the water district isn’t interested in further pursuing a pilot project. However, if the EERC fixes the models, the district “would certainly consider a request by the EERC to develop a pilot project,” he wrote.

Walters said the EERC is not planning to redo the models at this time.

“The EERC believes that these discrepancies do not in any way diminish the opportunity for a major demonstration of the Waffle concept or the underlying value of such a demonstration,” the statement reads. “In fact, such a demonstration would greatly facilitate a thorough evaluation of any and all available models.”

Volk said it would be difficult to justify spending public money on a project with unclear benefits.

“If the EERC is not prepared to correct the models and see what is the answer, it’s hard for anybody, I think, to take that concept and advance it,” he said.

Fischer stated in his letter to Kurz that the district remains concerned about other issues related to the waffle plan, including road safety, liability and regulatory obstacles.

“However, in light of the modeling deficiencies, there is certainly no need to engage in any further debate about those issues at this time,” he wrote.

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