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Red River Basin: ‘Here we go again’

Published (3/4/2010)
By Sue Hegarty
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The Red River of the North flows north between the Minnesota-North Dakota border from Breckenridge, Minn. to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.Alden Gjevre and his wife, Patricia, moved to Rivershore Drive in Moorhead in 1968. The following spring, a ravine behind their home and the Red River across the street threatened to flood the house.

Then during the 1997 flood, sandbags couldn’t keep 8 inches of sewage from backing up in the couple’s finished basement, costing $11,765 to cleanup. Gjevre, 77, had automatic valves installed to prevent future backups and didn’t remodel, which would have carried a $40,000 price tag.

When the Red River of the North flooded last year, the Gjevre’s home dodged major damage because of an earthen dike built where his former neighbor’s house once stood and was removed thanks to flood mitigation funds.

This week, Moorhead volunteers began filling 300,000 sandbags in preparation for another round of spring flooding. Gjevre said he hopes state grants will be available so the city can purchase his house, one of 50 remaining on the city’s acquisition list.

In St. Paul, legislators have begun prioritizing limited funds for long-term mitigation and crises management.

After the 550-mile Red River exceeded its banks last spring, the state appropriated $53 million in bond proceeds to pay for flood mitigation.

Last summer, the City of Moorhead matched an $8 million state appropriation with $8.2 million in local resources. The funds were allocated toward short-term infrastructure needs until a permanent flood protection project can be constructed. A portion of the local share was assessed to benefitting properties, and stormwater fees were increased citywide to pay the local share. About 25 flood mitigation projects are now underway in Moorhead and another 35 are being designed, such as the installation of gated storm sewers, pumping stations, flood walls and an earthen levee.

The Red River flows north between the Minnesota-North Dakota border from Breckenridge, Minn. To Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada. Gjevre recently maximized his flood insurance to $250,000 “in case the house ends up in Winnipeg.”

Rural watershed managers fear recent Fargo-Moorhead flood relief projects will create extreme flooding conditions for communities downstream.

Ice jams caused water to back up 28 miles downstream last year and “through extreme sandbagging efforts, we were able to save the town,” said Hendrum Mayor Curt Johannsen. Water levels through Hendrum could be 6-8 inches higher this year because of what’s happening upstream, Johannsen said. “We need this money now more than ever because of the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion,” he said.

Rep. Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead) empathized. “I know my colleagues back in Moorhead and Clay County share that concern. We want that problem solved.”

Up to this point, strategies have focused on diverting the water, but Charlie Anderson, a civil engineer and member of the Red River Watershed Management Board, said holding the water on land longer should be part of the solution. Wetlands, culverts and impoundment lots could produce lasting benefits for wildlife and create short-term jobs in the region, as well as alleviating the downstream affects. Local authorities support holding more water on the land, but those alternatives wouldn’t qualify for federal cost sharing.

Working with the cities on a feasibility study, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that a 25-mile diversion channel on the Minnesota side of the Red River is the most cost-effective way to reduce water flow on the river. The levee would start near Rustad, going east and north across Interstate 94 to a rail-yard in Dilworth, turning toward Kragnes, ending back at the Red River north of County Road 96. The estimated cost is between $871 million and $1.1 billion. The federal cost share would be about $570 million, with the remainder presumably coming from local and state government.

“It sounds, as far as cost comparison, the retention projects would not be as expensive as the diversion,” said Rep. Ken Eken (DFL-Twin Valley). The House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee chairman sponsors HF2433, which seeks nearly $42 million for downstream projects in Hendrum, Perley and other small communities. The bill awaits action by the House Environment and Natural Resources Finance Division. Its companion, SF2233, sponsored by Sen. Keith Langseth (DFL-Glyndon), rests with the Senate Finance Committee.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended $50 million for flood hazard mitigation in his capital investment proposal. The House-approved bonding bill contained $50 million while the Senate bill earmarked $70 million. A conference committee called for $63.5 million.

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