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Published February 11 2012

Diversion Discussion: Diversion would put Richland, Wilkin counties at risk

FARGO - Leaders in Richland and Wilkin counties have long voiced their opposition to the Red River diversion because of the harm the proposed project will cause communities south of Fargo-Moorhead.

New data released last week by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows the full extent of those impacts – information that will likely aid in future discussions between Cass and Clay counties and their southern neighbors.

Richland and Wilkin counties’ opposition stems from a proposed upstream storage element associated with the diversion project.

Plans call for a staging area south of the diversion channel that would temporarily hold back as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water during times of severe flood.

The staging area poses the greatest threat to residents in southern Cass and Clay counties, where whole communities – such as Oxbow and Hickson – would have to be displaced to allow for the stored water.

But the impacts extend south into Richland and Wilkin counties, affecting some residents there, too.

The corps’ recent analysis found, during a 100-year flood event, as many as 70 buildings – including 27 homes – between Wilkin and Richland counties could be affected by additional flooding caused by the Red River diversion.

The data

Corps engineers broke down the impacts based on modeling for 10-, 50- and 100-year events; however Richland and Wilkin county leaders have also asked for the data on 500-year floods, a forecast level the likes of which residents have yet to see.

At a Diversion Authority meeting last week, corps engineers said they’ll send that information, too, but there’s nominal difference in the diversion’s impact in a 100-year versus a 500-year event.

With or without the project, Wilkin and Richland counties would be inundated in a 500-year flood, the corps report states.

The data shows the additional impacts caused by the diversion are less than what each county already experiences in a 100-year event.

Overall though, that still means more people, more homes and more land affected by flooding than there would’ve been without a project at all.

Under present conditions without a diversion, the corps found 188 structures – including 44 homes – in Richland County would already be affected by a 100-year flood.

In Wilkin County, 25 structures – including nine homes – would currently be flooded by a 100-year event.

The diversion would cause 52 more structures in Richland County and 18 more in Wilkin County to be subject to flooding, the corps said.

Ten buildings between both counties – including three homes – could see as much as an extra 2 feet of floodwater or more with the diversion in place.

In Richland County, most buildings – about 140 – would see less than a foot of water more than what they experience now, the corps said.

In Wilkin County, the extra water levels would be higher for the majority of structures. Forty-two buildings could see an extra 1 to 2 feet of floodwater, the corps estimates.

In terms of acreage, the corps’ models show an additional 4,821 acres would be temporarily affected in a 100-year flood after the diversion is built.

Without the project, 11,960 acres are already flooded between the two counties, the corps said.

Corps engineers estimate the extra floodwaters could stick around for up to three to seven days longer than under present conditions.

Next steps

Richland and Wilkin county leaders received the corps’ geographic-specific analysis two weeks ago, and some said they’re still poring over the data.

Wilkin County Commissioner Lyle Hovland, of Rothsay, Minn., said he was struck by how devastating a 100-year flood could be for some residents.

The two counties are unified in wanting some major changes to the project that will eliminate, or at the very least diminish, the upstream impacts.

“I don’t think we have a problem with the diversion portion; it’s the dam that’s giving us heartburn,” said Richland County Commissioner Perry Miller, of Wahpeton, N.D.

Richland and Wilkin county leaders are in the process of drafting a joint-powers agreement that officially combines the county’s forces in opposing the project.

Even after the upstream staging was added to the project, Richland and Wilkin leaders said they weren’t included in official discussions about the project – and they want to make sure their voices are heard before plans go any further.

“We had to make some noise to even get any attention,” Miller said. “We don’t want attention; we just don’t want to be affected.”

Cass and Clay county leaders are taking note, with plans in the near future to meet personally with their southern neighbors and discuss the project.

Richland and Wilkin leaders have noticed Fargo-Moorhead officials’ improved efforts to communicate with them.

“It’d be nice to have some conversation there to see what the common ground is and obviously discuss the issues where we disagree,” Hovland said. “Adding the dam and retention area into the equation has made things very difficult.”

Diversion Authority officials are looking at various ways to diminish the upstream impacts, specifically by increasing the allowable river flows through Fargo-Moorhead.

That solution, which is still being studied, could potentially reduce how often the diversion would need to be used and also diminish how often the upstream storage would be needed.

The results of that study won’t come back for several months yet, but Diversion Authority leaders have voiced optimism that they can find a solution that will reduce the harm inflicted by the F-M project.

Richland and Wilkin county leaders said they’re encouraged by those efforts, but they’re still making preparations for the worst-case scenario.

Hovland said the joint-powers agreement would allow the counties to expend funds to hire attorneys or pay for engineering, “any resources needed to help us make our case.”

“Our goal is to see to it that Fargo-Moorhead gets some decent permanent protection that doesn’t cause so much adversity for the upstream people,” Miller said. “Our resolve is pretty strong, and so is Wilkin County’s.”

“We will take great measures to get this project changed,” Miller added.

Richland County commissioners will likely vote on approving the joint-powers agreement at their Feb. 21 meeting, Miller said, adding that Wilkin might also vote on it that same night.


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Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column? Send an email to Forum reporter Kristen Daum at kdaum@forumcomm.com (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, PO Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.