Dave Olson, Published February 03 2013
Ring levee opponents adamant
Today, the bar’s owner, Mike Bice, is firmly opposed to a dam that would come with the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion because it would potentially place Hickson and Bakke, where Bice has his home, in the middle of a giant bathtub.
Bice is also against a ring levee that’s been proposed for Hickson, Bakke and nearby Oxbow.
“The Fargo dam pushes Fargo’s problem upon us,” he said. “So, I’m not going to push my problem on the rest of my friends and neighbors. I’m not turning my back on those who have been fighting for me from day one.”
Bice shared his views while talking with friends at the Knickerbocker. It was easy to see his words were aimed at Oxbow, whose city council recently voted 3-2 to withdraw from the Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Agreement, which opposes the diversion.
Oxbow is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Diversion Authority on the feasibility of constructing a ring dike for Oxbow that could include Bakke and Hickson.
A levee and buyouts have been discussed as options for the three communities that are in an area that would be used for storing water if a $1.8 billion diversion is built and put into operation.
Defining where residents stand on the issues of ring dikes and buyouts depends on who you ask.
Indications are that most residents of Bakke and Hickson prefer buyouts over a ring levee.
In Oxbow, Mayor Jeff Nyhof backs a ring levee and said nearly 70 percent of the town’s estimated 100 households agree with him.
He said the position reflects a growing realization about what a diversion – and the dam structures that come with it – would mean for Oxbow.
Regarding Bakke, Nyhof said that community already has a ring dike, of sorts, that protects it from a 100-year flood while holding water in Oxbow.
“You have a ring dike right now; it’s called Highway 81,” Nyhof said. “If you want to be in the same boat as us, let us lower Highway 81 by 2 feet and see how you feel.”
Levees aside, what really appears to rankle diversion opponents in Bakke, Hickson and Oxbow are the dam structures and water retention that would come with it.
Diversion critics say the necessary retention can be achieved elsewhere in the Red River Valley, if only attention and resources were committed to the effort.
Nyhof, however, said the best information he can find leads him to believe Oxbow would need a levee no matter where retention happens.
“If Oxbow is going to exist, we’re going to have a ring levee, regardless,” he said.
Nyhof’s views are not shared by fellow city council member Dan Zink.
“I am not in favor of the ring dike, and I’m definitely not in favor of the dam and reservoir component of Fargo’s protection plans,” Zink said.
“The water storage that is going to cover the thousands and thousands of acres in our area is unnecessary,” he said, adding that any benefits from the current diversion plan would come at a monstrous cost.
“I’m not just talking about the dollars to construct,” Zink said. “It’s the cost to homeowners, landowners, business owners, families and school districts.”
He also disagreed with Nyhof’s assessment of support for a ring levee in Oxbow.
“There is a split in the community and the council,” Zink said, adding that on several recent votes, the council was tied 2-2 with the mayor casting a tie-breaking vote.
“I do believe there has been a lack of information shared with the community about other options,” Zink said, referring to a levee.
Nyhof said describing Oxbow as split over a ring levee overstates the case.
He said a handful of people may oppose the idea, but most residents are beginning to understand what a levee would mean for home values and the options landowners can pursue.
“There’s a lot of excitement in Oxbow right now,” Nyhof said.
Many in Bakke and Hickson feel the ring levee question would become irrelevant if more effort was put into finding alternative retention options, said Steve Brakke, a Hickson farmer and chairman of the Pleasant Township Board, which is on record opposing a diversion and a ring dike.
“We’re saying, ‘You can dig your ditch, leave the dams out of it and don’t withhold any water. We’ll be just fine,’ ” Brakke said.
Doug Lingen, a resident of Bakke, said the retention component of the diversion is what has people upset.
“We’re not opposed to Fargo getting flood protection. We’re opposed to how they’re going about it,” he said.
Diversion planners understand the anxiety of those who live in the area that would be used as a reservoir for a diversion. But if viable retention alternatives exist, a compelling case has yet to be made, said Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Diversion Authority.
“I have been in city and county government for 23 years, and I have seen water boards studying retention for more than 23 years,” Vanyo said.
“If there was something that made sense and was feasible, don’t you think it would have been discovered by now?” he asked.
Vanyo said the current diversion plan is what’s required to provide Fargo and Moorhead with protection from a 100-year flood and the ability to fight a 500-year flood.
He said a committee is working to identify retention options to reduce the amount of water that has to be stored, but he said the further away a project is from the diversion, the higher the chances nature will throw a curve ball.
Terry Williams, a spokeswoman for the corps, agreed.
She said the current diversion plan calls for about 200,000 acre-feet of storage right where some tributaries enter the main stem of the Red River south of Fargo.
“It’s the most effective storage available for a project,” Williams said.
“If you wanted to find storage elsewhere further upstream to replace that 200,000 acre feet,” she said, “you would have to find about 400,000 to 600,000 acre-feet. So, you’re going to be affecting many more people, many more acres by trying to move upstream.”
Diversion critics have claimed that the decision to store large amounts of water south of Fargo as part of a diversion only happened because of complaints raised by downstream interests north of Fargo-Moorhead who would otherwise see higher flood stages.
Vanyo says those critics are correct.
But he says they often fail to mention that mitigating downstream impacts that go all the way to the Canadian border would be far more costly than mitigating something 10 to 12 miles south of the diversion.
“That’s reality,” Vanyo said.
“The focus didn’t change just so we could annoy people south of us,” he added. “The focus changed because we could not fathom mitigating several hundred miles of negative impacts versus 12 miles.”
Vanyo maintained that critics turn a blind eye to what many experts have said is a fact: that putting retention somewhere other than where it is in the current plans, such as farther north, would put far more structures at risk “than we do with the proposal we have right now.”
He said opponents would have people believe diversion plans were dreamed up overnight, which he said is far from the case.
“It’s been four years, with (input from) dozens upon dozens of engineers in addition to the corps’ engineers,” said Vanyo. He extended an invitation to diversion critics.
“If they’ve got a bright idea, bring it to the table.”
At its next meeting on Feb. 14, the Diversion Authority expects to vote on forwarding one of three recommendations to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The possible recommendations are:
• Dropping current planning for a ring levee for the Oxbow, Bakke and Hickson area.
• Continuing to study the feasibility of a ring levee for Oxbow alone.
• Continuing to study the feasibility of a ring levee for all three communities.
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Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555