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Published July 23 2012

Forum editorial: Blip can become a drought

One of the lessons that can be gleaned from Forum Communications’ recent “Living with Water” project is that the two problems the region has historically faced regarding water are too much or too little. The comprehensive, multi-part series looked critically at the past, present and future of water management in the vast region from eastern Minnesota to western North Dakota. It was both a look at the record and a snapshot of conditions at the time of the reporting.

How quickly it changes.

The region has gone from floods to dry (drought in some areas) in a little more than a year. Where just a few months ago high water was the plague, today parched croplands are in the news. Where the headlines warned about record floods on rivers for three years running, today rivers are down and watersheds are dry.

The heat and lack of general rainfall is a reminder that former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness and his flood-fighting successor, Dennis Walaker, have never flinched about their priority for the city: water supply. Even as the city confronted unprecedented high water, the lurking concern has always been a fickle and sometimes diminished potable water supply.

It wasn’t that long ago (the late 1980s) that the Red River at Fargo fell to one of its lowest levels in recorded history. It had been lower in the 1930s, but Fargo was not as large a city then. And today? Fargo’s population and water needs are much greater than in the 1980s. Should the river drop or – as it has in the past – go so low the water plant intakes are threatened – the city could be in deep trouble.

It is imperative, therefore, that the concerns of the city’s last two mayors be considered in the context of the region’s weather shift from wet to dry. While this summer’s dry period does not necessarily signal a long-term 1930s-style drought, there also is no guaranteed the wet period that began in early 1993 will continue. The city needs to be prepared for both.

Permanent flood protection, specifically the F-M diversion, is essential. But so is a guaranteed potable water supply, and the only practical source of water is to the west: the Missouri River. There is a plan to tap that great resource, but it’s been off the radar during the wet/flood spell.

Let’s move it up the priority list. After all, even if the current dry weather is but a blip in longer term wet conditions, history warns us that a blip can become a drought.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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