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Dave Roepke, Published April 12 2011

Roepke: Flood fight gives way to sales job

FARGO - Think back to elementary school science class. Recall the water cycle, that perpetual treadmill of evaporation, condensation and infiltration?

Recent floods in the Red River Valley have produced an equally reliable cycle: estimation, preparation and exertion, finally giving way to promotion.

The flood cycle pushed into promotion mode on Monday, as Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker noted at a news conference that overland flooding swamping areas northwest of Fargo and closing down 31 miles of Interstate 29 would be reduced if the $1.7 billion diversion ever gets built.

“If there’s anything that’s good that comes out of three in a row, it’s the need for something permanent,” Walaker said in his pitch for long-term protection.

And if the diversion – which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers figures would cost closer to $2 billion in the fast-track scenario in which it is finished in 2021 – never manages to make it off the drawing board?

“If this thing fails, one of these days we’re going to lose,” Walaker said, issuing his typical warning.

It’s just that time in the cycle. In an interview later on Monday, the mayor – a pessimistic but persistent booster of the 36-mile ditch to redirect floodwaters around Fargo-Moorhead – made no bones about the impact of hawking the diversion while the flood is still forcing boat commutes. “It points out, hey, this is real. If you want this to stop, we need a project,” he said.

Despite the inevitability of the sales job, Walaker made a good point, highlighting a benefit of the proposal that gets too little attention and is proving as relevant this week as ever.

The land encircled by the North Dakota diversion, including Harwood and many now-inundated areas, would see several feet less breakout flooding under plans reapproved again last week by Fargo, Moorhead and Cass and Clay counties.

That overland protection is a chief practical reason to choose the North Dakota diversion over a far-cheaper Minnesota-side project, said Craig Evans, an Army Corps project manager. South of Harwood, it could take 7 feet off a 100-year flood, he said.

In that 100-year flood – which the corps calls a 1 percent flood, reflecting its supposed chance of hitting in any given year – the engineers project the land flooded would shrink from 142 square miles to 31 square miles, slides shown by the corps at March meetings in West Fargo and Kindred show.

Outside the protection area, Evans said, the plan is to add no extra height to overland flooding, though people who live there are skeptical about that plan.

Of course, there’s also a chief political reason for building in North Dakota.

“I just don’t think a Minnesota project can be built,” Walaker said, citing the imbalance of state dollars and the early-voiced opposition of Rep. Collin Peterson.

Judging by his odds-making, Walaker doesn’t think the North Dakota plan has much better hopes. He’s publicly given it a 40 percent chance, due mostly to the knife fight being waged in Congress over the federal budget.

The good news is Walaker said he’ll raise those odds if Congress has the final report on the project by the end of the year.

The bad news is – good photo ops or not – he’d only up it to 50 percent.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535