Patrick Springer, Published April 13 2014
Spotlight on criticism of flood diversion projectFARGO – A little more than 2,000 additional acres of land under water as a result of the flood diversion to protect Fargo-Moorhead.
That’s the total area in Richland and Wilkin counties that would be submerged in the event of a 100-year flood because of the diversion, beyond the area that already would be under water regardless of the project, according to officials.
Figures from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which designed the project, show that 1,071 acres of land in Richland County would be under water from the project in a 100-year flood, in addition to the 11,976 acres that would flood anyway.
In Wilkin County, the impact would be an additional 995 acres to the 2,363 that would be inundated by a 100-year flood.
Proponents of the $1.8 billion flood diversion proposal believe the intense criticism from upstream opponents in Richland and Wilkin counties is out of proportion to the impacts, which the project is striving to mitigate.
Steps have included a planned ring dike to protect Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke subdivision, and possible ring dikes to protect other areas from the upstream staging area ponding.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Fargo didn’t oppose the diversion that protects Wahpeton-Breckenridge from flooding. Since that project was built, after the 1997 flood, river crests travel downstream to Fargo-Moorhead more rapidly, providing less time to prepare, Walaker said.
“Wahpeton changed our game,” the mayor said, adding that the four-day time window has shrunk to 24 hours.
Ken Pawluk, a Cass County commissioner and member of the Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Authority, said flooding here is exacerbated by the “extensive” farmland drainage in Richland County.
“Cass County receives all of the drainage water from Richland County,” all of which drains into the Sheyenne, Wild Rice or Red rivers, he said.
Water retention projects
Although Richland County residents and officials promote massive water retention as an alternative to the diversion, the Richland County Water Resource District has yet to build a single water retention project.
“It would be nice if they would build at least one,” Pawluk said.
Don Moffet, chairman of the Richland County Water Resource District board, acknowledged that the county has yet to build any water retention projects, and none is on the drawing board.
“We’re looking at and identifying spots that have potential,” Moffet said. “But we don’t have any in operation yet. It’s a beginning process at this point.”
Moffet said he could not provide figures for the total number of acres drained in Richland County, or the miles of drainage ditches, but said tile-drain systems in the county can be used to reduce flooding, if controlled to do so.
In the event of a 100-year flood, the diversion’s staging area would provide about 215,000 acre-feet of water storage, inundating about 32,500 acres with at least a foot of water, according to the corps.
Of that, about 18,300 acres, or 56 percent, would be in Cass County, with 13,000, or 40 percent, in Clay County, the two counties that would primarily benefit from the diversion project.
Water storage would affect fewer than 800 acres, or 2.5 percent, in Richland County and 450 acres, or 1.5 percent, in Wilkin County, according to the corps.
But officials representing Richland and Wilkin counties, meanwhile, bristle at suggestions that the diversion project’s retention component would have only limited upstream impacts for their property owners. They contend the staging area’s footprint will flood 50,000 acres, not 32,500, when areas covered by less than a foot of water are included in the impacts of a 100-year flood.
“Any time it affects the people of Wilkin County, it’s of concern to us,” Stephanie Miranowski of the Wilkin (Minn.) County Commission said. “What are the benefits to Minnesota in this particular plan? I don’t see the benefits.”
Land value restricted
Officials for the corps and diversion have said a 500-year flood, which the diversion is designed to handle, would flood much of Moorhead and West Fargo, as well as most of Fargo.
Perry Miller, a Richland County commissioner, said land affected by the diversion would be restricted, diminishing its value.
“That land now becomes completely useless for anything but farming,” he said, adding that it could not be developed.
Flowage easements to compensate landowners for flooding would be one-time payments, Miller said. He is skeptical that a crop insurance solution, which diversion officials are exploring, would prove feasible.
No summer flood in recorded history ever has reached the level that would affect Richland and Wilkin counties, suggesting crop damage from the project is a very low risk, diversion officials have said.
Because Richland and Wilkin counties won’t benefit from the diversion project, they shouldn’t be asked to sacrifice valuable farmland to protect Fargo-Moorhead, officials said.
They have proposed moving the diversion’s retention area farther north, closer to Fargo-Moorhead, but diversion officials have rejected that alternative.
“We’ve come out with a plan,” Miller said. “They just don’t want to talk about it.”
Richland and Wilkin officials and residents repeatedly have argued that the diversion is really an economic development project, to enable future growth in the metro area, but diversion officials and supporters have countered that it is the only viable plan.
As the two sides appear entrenched in their positions, the dispute appears likely to be decided in a courtroom.
The Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Authority and a joint entity comprised of the two upstream counties remain embroiled in two federal lawsuits.
The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority is trying to block the diversion’s “upstream storage” project. It’s also suing to block a proposed ring dike to protect Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke subdivision.
Despite their differences over the diversion, Cass and Richland counties are exploring the possibility of joint projects to reduce flooding. No joint projects have yet been identified.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522