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Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications Co., Published April 20 2012

15 years later, Ada settles flood project

ADA, Minn. – After 15 years, it’s finally Ada’s turn for flood protection.

The long wait apparently ended last week, when the Wild Rice Watershed District Board voted 6-1 to allow the city to move a drainage ditch.

At face value, it appears to be an innocuous decision. But it clears the way for a dike project, the last and biggest step in protecting the town’s 1,700 residents from a recurrence

of the 1997 flood that caused $40 million in damage in Ada.

While the flood magnitude was greater in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Ada’s 1997 flood was freakish. Parts of town had knee-deep water that froze because of Blizzard Hannah. Despite the attention created by images such as cows frozen into the ice, Ada residents spun their wheels on flood protection over the years while fellow Minnesota cities such as East Grand Forks, Crookston, Warren, Roseau and Moorhead completed projects.

With the decision, Ada’s ditch work should be completed this year and a FEMA-certified earthen dike should be in place by the end of 2013, the last piece of the protection puzzle. The $10 million project, sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, includes a $500,000 cost to the city.

“It’s great news and a key to the future of our town,” said Ross Pfund, the third-generation owner of the local newspaper, the Norman County Index.

“This is not booming times for small towns. But the flood protection makes it a more attractive place to live,” he said.

Rich Pinsonneault, a City Council member and the local State Farm Insurance agent, said flood protection has become more urgent because of new floodplain mapping technology. The latest technology likely will place about 400 of Ada’s 800 homes in the floodplain. Approximately 250 of those 400 homes have mortgages that will require flood insurance.

“These are lower- to middle-class homes, so the folks can’t afford this,” Pinsonneault said. “Facing $1,000 to $1,800 flood insurance a year for homes with an average market value of $30,000 to $40,000 would really hurt people.”

The dike will mean no flood insurance requirement. “Building a dike will protect people from floods and the flood of bureaucracy,” Pinsonneault said.

As an insurance agent, Pinsonneault likely would have benefited personally from an insurance requirement. He said he is more interested in the bigger picture, however.

“This dike project has sealed our future,” he said.

He also has experienced severe flooding as a resident of Warren in 1979 and as an insurance agent in Moorhead in 1997.

“I’ve spent many hours in basements and broken homes,” he said. “I don’t want to see that again.”

The 1997 flood was not an isolated event. Mayor Jim Evanson said the city has declared a flooding state of emergency seven times since then. And, 2002 had two record-breaking floods in the same month.

The city’s frustrations since 1997 include the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approving one project, only to rule several years later than it didn’t meet the cost-benefit ratio.

That history led to Thursday’s hearing that drew about 140 people, who made their points in well-mannered words and tones. The sides were well-defined, with Ada residents speaking for the project while rural landowners spoke against it.

Engineers said that, under the worst scenario, the project would raise overland flooding levels by a maximum of two inches. The small size of the rise didn’t matter to landowners whose livelihood has been affected by chronic high water in the spring.

Rural landowner Neil Rockstad said the project shouldn’t be approved unless “the impact is zero.” Landowner Neil Hultin added that “when the water is high, even a 10th of a foot is a lot.”

But the argument of city resident Tom Baker was the winning argument with the water board. “If nothing is done, it will happen to Ada again,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time.”

Ryan Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald.

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