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Carol Cwiak, Published December 14 2013

Letter: Criticism of diversion not credible

Blain Johnson’s Dec. 5 commentary in The Forum told only part of the story of flood mitigation. Johnson focused on two points. The first was a push for Fargo to raise flood stages to be “more representative” of moderate and major flooding stages. He stated, “Flood stages should be used as tools for awareness, not as bargaining chips to subvert citizens and legislators.” While I agree that flood stages should be representative, I trust emergency management professionals at the city and county level and Fargo’s leadership to do what is best for the city.

Having worked with this team, I say with confidence that flood stage levels are not used as bargaining chips to subvert citizens or legislators. Quite the opposite is true. Every step of each year’s river watch and potential flood fight is shared with citizens, media, schools and businesses, and all agencies that may have cause to engage in the fight. Regular meetings are held and plain speak is used to ensure that no one is confused by agency or operational jargon.

Science ignored

Johnson’s second point was in regard to the probability of a major flood that would warrant the cost of a diversion. He stated, “Instead of choosing to protect against something that has never happened and may never happen, perhaps it is best to continue to chip away at local projects that could protect the city to 41 feet at much less cost than a diversion.” He said, “If the city of Fargo were to suddenly stop current mitigation projects, and the river happens to get as high as 2009, and the dikes happen to fail, and the failure happens in a spot that would flood a large section of town, would the city even incur enough damage to justify the original cost of a diversion?” These positions are counter to the sound practice of emergency management.

In arguing that the diversion would protect against something that has never happened and may never happen, Johnson used historical data to diminish the utility of a diversion. He ignored the predictive science that is behind support for such mitigation measures. Even if a diversion was not the protective measure selected to protect the region, we ignore the predictive science at our peril.

Misreading of losses

Johnson asserts that even with a failure of protective measures, the loss would not justify the cost of a diversion. The cost of the diversion is estimated to be approximately $1.8 billion dollars. The cost is to be distributed between the federal government (45 percent) and the affected state and local governments in North Dakota (50 percent) and Minnesota (5 percent). North Dakota taxpayers will pay additional sales tax to help pay for the local government portion of the project. The cost to most local citizens (the sales tax increase) will be largely unnoticed due to the base it is distributed across (all of Cass County).

Johnson overlooked more than he considered in his cost/benefit analysis. He did not consider the impact on the region that annual flood threats pose even if the region emerges without damage. His assessment overlooked: time spent by the community preparing for and fighting a potential flood; stress and impact on local and state leaders; mental anguish of residents and businesses; interruption of normal activities (to include school and work); loss of taxable revenue during periods of closure.

Salient ‘costs’

Even more lacking in sound analysis was his query regarding whether a major flood event that affected a large part of Fargo would justify the cost of a diversion. Regardless of the flood protection measure chosen or the percentage of cost absorbed by the region, permanent flood protection that allows folks to live and work without fear of loss of life or property has value. Johnson ignored some of the salient “costs” of a major flood: loss of life; injury, illness, and health issues; mental health strain; property loss; wildlife loss; agricultural loss; environmental degradation; social disruption; educational interruption; business disruption; tax base loss; tourism loss; population loss; and dozens of other impacts that are quantifiable.

It is one thing to disagree with the diversion. It is quite another to argue against the need and to assert that those supporting the effort seek to alarm citizens and legislators into submission. The realities of living near the Red River are clear: The river will continue to flood at varying levels, and communities will need protection.

Cwiak, Ph.D., J.D., lives in West Fargo. She is assistant professor of emergency management at North Dakota State University.