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Published November 26 2012

Forum editorial: Downtown floodwall a priority

Downtown Fargo remains remarkably vulnerable to disaster from major floods, despite the city’s great strides in flood protection in recent years. Every time the Red River rises to 30 feet – the stage at which major flooding begins – downtown Fargo is at risk of flooding. That’s an extraordinary gap in flood protection for a city that has seen repeated major floods in recent years, with seven topping 30 feet since the 1997 flood revealed the city’s vulnerability to catastrophic floods that have become distressingly common.

Although much of the city is now well protected to a level of about 38 feet, and the city continues to work to raise permanent protections to 42.5 feet citywide, the heart of the city remains the weakest link in the chain of defense. Whenever a major flood is on the way, work begins on a temporary clay levee to protect downtown once the river reaches 24 feet.

Why wait until then? The elastic clay subsoil can’t withstand the weight of the temporary earthen dike without the counterweight of the rising river. That necessitates a round-the-clock scramble to build an emergency dike to protect some of the city’s most crucial services and infrastructure, including Sanford Medical Center, City Hall and the city library, numerous banks, vital telecommunications and mass transit.

We note all of this because the city’s plans for providing more permanent downtown flood protection recently sparked concerns that a floodwall likely would require shifting Second Street North a bit to the west, possibly threatening the Howard Johnson Inn and probably affecting Sidestreet Grille and Pub. That won’t be certain, however, until soil testing determines the footprint of the project, which has a $24 million price tag.

So far, Fargo has been incredibly lucky in its reliance upon temporary measures to protect the city center from disaster. It has gotten by on the cheap, with the cost of a temporary levee roughly $100,000. But a breach in a temporary dike, or a fast rise that prevented completion of an emergency levee, would cost many millions of dollars and very probably wipe out irreplaceable city landmarks.

Who can forget the emergency evacuation of patients from MeritCare Medical Center, as Sanford then was called, during the record 2009 flood because administrators couldn’t be certain that the hospital could continue to operate in the event temporary protections failed?

A permanent floodwall could enable more water to flow through downtown, helping to minimize the upstream storage impacts south of Fargo. It also would end the detours and traffic snarls that happen whenever an emergency levee goes up. Even if a few landowners must sacrifice, the city must put in place permanent defenses and do away with the precarious, last-minute scramble to build temporary levees. Fargo cannot afford to lose a flood fight that would gut downtown.

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

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