Debate Continues on Proposed Flood Projects for Fargo, N.D., Area

February 2, 2010

As community leaders in the Fargo area discuss projects to save North Dakota’s largest city from Red River flooding, a mayor whose city has been lauded for its plan to hold back the Red says he should have insisted on something better.

The neighboring cities of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., located about 70 miles downstream from Fargo, built $400 million worth of levees, flood walls and pump stations after a 1997 flood that wiped out both downtown areas and left thousands homeless. The system has kept the cities relatively unscathed since, while communities north and south have fought floods nearly every year.

Even so, East Grand Forks Mayor Lynn Stauss wishes he would have pushed for a more expensive flood protection plan that would have enabled the two cities to make better use of property near the river.

“Nobody’s asked me on it, but if I were to do it all over again, I would have tried hard and strong to do a diversion,” said Stauss, in his 15th year as mayor. “My advice to Fargo and Moorhead (Minn.) would be to take care of the problem if you can, and don’t be afraid to take the more expensive option if you’re looking at the big picture.”

Fargo-Moorhead area officials already have decided that a diversion is the best option but are debating the size and location of the channel. The plan favored by the Metro Flood Management Committee features a $1.4 billion, 35,000-cubic-feet-per-second diversion on the North Dakota side, which is the largest and most expensive project on the wish list.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will manage the final project, is expected to tell the committee whether the larger plan meets so-called cost-benefit ratios needed for approval. The metro group would then have until April 15 to figure out if there is enough federal, state and local dollars to pay for it.

“That is 500-year flood protection and people in every public forum say that is what they want,” Tim Mahoney, Fargo’s deputy mayor, said of the larger diversion.

Brad Wimmer, a Fargo city commissioner and member of the flood committee, said it would be “difficult but not impossible” to fund the larger plan.

On the plus side, he said, is the ability of North Dakota’s two veteran U.S. senators to secure federal money for water projects, and a billion-dollar surplus in that state’s budget. The majority of contributions between the two states would come from North Dakota because corps officials say it stands to benefit most from the diversion.

On the minus side, Wimmer said, is Minnesota’s poor economy and some state legislators from western North Dakota who might want to hold down spending.

“I think what a lot of people are telling us here is that we are not going to have another opportunity in history to get this done,” Wimmer said.

It took a massive sandbagging effort last spring to save homes and businesses in Fargo-Moorhead from the first river crest that set a record and the second crest that left flood fighters frazzled. Officials estimated the two communities stacked about 6 million sandbags to hold back the north-flowing Red River.

A couple of months later, more than 90 percent of Fargo residents voted in favor of a half-cent city sales tax that’s expected to generate an estimated $200 million over 20 years to be used for flood protection.

Although the Fargo area thus far has received about half of the total snowfall it did a year ago, Stauss said it would be natural for residents to be nervous about the spring.

“Fargo and Moorhead both have to be worried right now with the snow on the ground. And what are the months of February and March going to bring, and the rains of April?” Stauss said. “So the fear is there already.”

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