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Published April 22 2014

Forum editorial: Retention alone isn’t adequate

Anyone who still clings to the fantasy that retention alone will solve Fargo-Moorhead’s severe flooding problems is in for a sobering dose of reality when confronting the facts. Retention is an important part of comprehensive flood control for the Red River Valley, but it’s no cure-all.

That’s glaringly obvious when examining the accomplishments of the Red River Retention Authority, a partnership between North Dakota and Minnesota joining regional water boards on both sides of the river. Formed in 2010, in the aftermath of the record 2009 flood, the authority is supposed to be the driving force in steering retention projects throughout the basin.

Supposed to be. As recently reported, after almost four years, the authority has yet to draft even an official slate of projects it backs to meet the ambitious goal of reducing severe flood flows on the Red by 20 percent. The authority has little to show beyond platitudes. Its leaders have yet to demonstrate that they have the will and the ability to get the job done. The key problem, as the backlash to the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion amply demonstrates, is that landowners balk at holding water on their land.

Meeting that 20 percent Red River flood crest reduction goal through systematic retention would help in managing severe floods, but it would take many years – probably decades – to achieve, leaving Fargo-Moorhead vulnerable in the meantime. The much ballyhooed Maple River Dam, with a capacity of 60,000 acre-feet, was talked about for several decades, and it took 10 years to secure the permit for the $30 million project.

That’s large for a retention project in the Red River Valley, but massive tracts of land would be required to hold enough water to meet the 20 percent reduction goal. A study for the Red River Basin Commission, paid for by the Flood Diversion Authority, has identified about 96 potential sites that could hold enough water – about 506,000 acre-feet, pooled over a cumulative 108,000 acres, or 169 square miles.

Assuming landowners would go along, and that much land could be made available for retention – a big “if” – the price tag would be steep, an estimated $1.16 billion, which assumes an average cost of $2,000 per acre-foot of storage, the standard rate. But “distributed retention” is complicated; the storage sites must be in the right spots for a particular flood.

And those upstream retention sites are primarily located in Richland and Wilkin counties, the hotbed of diversion opposition. Retention sounds good, and is easy to tout as a magical solution, but is no substitute for the diversion.

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