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Erik Burgess, Published May 20 2013

Moorhead may stop making sandbags for future floods

MOORHEAD – The city of Moorhead is considering not providing sandbags in future flood events.

Moorhead has spent nearly a half a million dollars for the flood of 2013, and a “significant portion” was providing around 50,000 sandbags to some of the 87 homes still left on the river, City Manager Michael Redlinger told the City Council on Monday.

For some city leaders, that’s too much spent on too few people.

Mayor Mark Voxland said the city has spent around $87 million since 2009 buying riverfront homes and constructing citywide levees up to 42.5 feet, so paying for the sandbags should be left to those individual homeowners who have declined a buyout offer.

Sandbags used this year for what the mayor called a “mediocre flood” were leftover from 2011. The Red hit a preliminary crest of 33.32 feet on May 1.

“We didn’t have to make sandbags, and we didn’t have to buy sandbags, and it still cost us almost a half a million dollars,” Voxland said. “The 87 folks that are left along the river really are at a point where they have to pony up something and be responsible citizens themselves for having property along the river.”

The council meeting Monday was a non-voting meeting. Voxland said the council at its next regular meeting Tuesday should consider adopting a policy of waiting until the National Weather Service issues a deterministic river forecast of 42.5 feet before providing sandbags.

“Until that point, the only people that need to protect themselves are the people along the river,” Voxland said.

Councilwoman Nancy Otto agreed with Voxland but said the council should consider still providing bags and sand but not filling the bags, as was done in 2006.

Councilman Mark Altenburg said the city also should consider who will pay for the disposal of the bags, even if the city stops providing sandbags.

“We’re not abandoning these people,” Altenburg said. “It’s just we won’t provide the same level of service.”

Since 2009, when the river hit 40.84 feet, the city has been gobbling up homes on the river’s banks, acquiring 217 homes. Only 87 properties are left along the river, and by the end of this year, all of them will have received at least one buyout offer, said City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

To build protection up to 44 feet behind those 87 properties would require 463,000 sandbags and would cost a ballpark $1.4 million, Zimmerman said.

Voxland asked Zimmerman if the city could be protected to 42.5 feet using only clay, no sandbags.

“Except for those properties on the river, yes,” Zimmerman said, adding that clay is about five times cheaper than sandbags.

Meanwhile, as the city’s floodwall and levee system nears completion, state and federal disaster aid will be increasingly harder to come by in the future “in all but the most extreme events,” Zimmerman said.

About $14.7 million of work remains before the entire city would be protected to 42.5 feet, and that work could be completed by the end of next year, Zimmerman said.

Redlinger said to have a presidential disaster declared in Minnesota, statewide expenditures must total between $7 million and $8 million. In North Dakota, that threshold is only $1 million.

“To still convince St. Paul that there is need here I think is just going to be a challenge in the future, so the best we can do, I believe, is just be self-sufficient,” Redlinger said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518