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Jane Ahlin, Published June 09 2012

Ahlin: Flood protection is a vital and expensive investment

Oh, the price tags: $247 million for flood mitigation, $393 million for infrastructure, $350 million for the diversion. My mind resists such enormous numbers, and I’m guessing that among Fargo residents, I’m not alone. The problem is that we need to understand the numbers to vote responsibly on City Measure 1, the measure that would extend the half-cent city sales tax that has been in place since 1992 for 20 more years. (Note: The tax was extended in 2002). Whether we like it or not, to adequately protect Fargo, that money has to come from somewhere.

So let’s talk about the price tags, why they are important and the future security for Fargo they represent. In fact, maybe we should begin the discussion with an even bigger number, specifically, Fargo’s $9 billion of assets at risk if the Red River has a “500-year” flood event.

For that, we need some history – not ancient stuff, rather, very recent history – because we don’t have to look back far to know what must be done. (No need to go into the American mindset here; however, it’s worth mentioning that our collective unwillingness to apply hard-learned history lessons – even recently hard-learned lessons – to present-day problems is perhaps our nation’s greatest failing. Unfortunately, on that score, those of us in the Red River Valley are pretty typical Americans.)

Were we having this conversation in 1996, we might be excused for pooh-poohing the notion of a 500-year flood event. Today, however, we know what happened in the spring of 1997. We know how close Fargo came to losing that flood fight and how horrifying it was to see Grand Forks go under. We know the cost to Grand Forks and the battle they continue to wage 15 years later to return the city to its pre-flood population and prosperity.

In addition to 1997, we have more recent reminders for why flood mitigation and the diversion are both of utmost importance. Major floods threatened us in 2009, 2010 and 2011, any one of which could have wreaked havoc if weather conditions had gone against us at the wrong moment. We also have the example of Minot in 2011, a city not even close to being prepared for the catastrophic flood situation it faced – a community still reeling from the resulting devastation.

In other words, we are well-versed in flooding, not only the financial costs but also the life-changing emotional price paid by residents and the toll taken on public systems – including school systems – and their employees. It would be the height of irresponsibility to let Fargo be unprepared when we so thoroughly understand the consequences.

To that end, Fargo’s city government has been proactive in planning. Unfortunately, as reasoned as their planning has been, they have done a lousy job of educating the public. We are confused about the importance of extending the half-cent sales tax, in large part because the other 1½-cent city sales tax has designated functions also related to Fargo’s infrastructure and flood-preparedness needs (part is allocated to sewer and water, while the other has been used for home buyouts in 2010 and 2011 and will help fund Fargo’s share of diversion costs). Extending the half-cent sales tax – as prioritized – allows for flood mitigation first, then street repair and then underground utility upgrades.

The projects are different but related. More to the point, they all are needed.

The truth is, we don’t notice infrastructure unless it fails, and we won’t notice flood preparation unless it is inadequate. The numbers to safeguard Fargo over the next few decades are huge: $247 million for flood mitigation, $393 million for infrastructure, $350 million for the diversion. But the expected cost per average household of less than $60 per year to continue the half-cent sales tax is not. Assessed any other way, such as with property tax hikes or increased special assessments, we would pay more. Of course, if we deny recent history lessons, we’ll end up paying the most of all.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.