FARGO, N.D. – Filling and laying sandbags has become a civic rite of spring in Fargo, where the swollen Red River has caused major flooding in three of the past four years.
With the region finally thawing out from another unusually snowy winter and the river again rising, local leaders are using this year's communitywide campaign to build support for a 36-mile canal that would steer the floodwater around Fargo and neighboring Moorehead, Minn., and fix the area's nagging problem once and for all.
But the plan, which has been kicked around for a few years, has drawn strong opposition from upstream farmers, homeowners and businesses, who don't want the diversion channel carving through their communities. They say it's nearly $2 billion price tag is a waste of money, and North Dakota legislators have balked at committing any of the state's money until the federal government gives the OK and puts in money of its own.
Dennis Walaker, who has spent much of his five years as Fargo's mayor dealing with the flooding problem, said there's no sense in delaying the project, which would take an estimated 10 years to complete. He said the time and money spent trying to stave off flooding every year has become "an almost ridiculous process," and that the canal is the only way to protect the Fargo metropolitan area from catastrophic floods like the one in 2009.
"To say that this gets easier," said Walaker, referring to the city's flood fighting prowess, "for some of us it's getting old. We need the diversion to go through."
Fargo dealt with major flooding for three straight years, starting in 2009. The first year was the worst, with the Red River hitting a record high-water mark of nearly 41 feet, or 23 feet above flood stage. Thousands of people had to leave home for higher ground and about 100 homes were badly damaged or rendered unlivable. The 2010 flood was the seventh-highest on record and the 2011 flood was the fourth-highest.
This year's peak is expected to reach at least 38 feet, which would make it the fifth-highest flood in history.
When city and county leaders christened the opening of Sandbag Central earlier this month, Cass County Commission chairman Vern Bennett compared the annual flood fight to a sporting event.
"We gather here to compete once again against a very dangerous team, whose members are called Red, Wild, Maple, Rush and Sheyenne," he said, rattling off names of area rivers to volunteers who would go on to fill a million sandbags in eight days. "We're ready, but this does not guarantee a win. In order to guarantee a win, we need to have permanent flood protection."
Twenty miles south, which is upstream on the north-flowing Red River, Mike Bice proudly displays a sign outside of his popular bar as a counter to what he sees the "giant pep rally" being held downstream to build support for the project. It reads, "CELEBRATING 41 YEARS WITH NO FARGO DAM," referring to the project by the derisive nickname opponents have given it. The sign isn't far off: Bice's Knickerbocker Liquor Locker is in an area that would be flooded to spare the Fargo metropolitan area downstream, where about 200,000 people live.
Like many opponents, Bice thinks a series of smaller, less costly anti-flood measures would better serve Red River communities.
"It's kind of like a football game. We would rather grind it out and score touchdowns than throw a Hail Mary at the end," Bice said.
Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman described the complex Red River diversion project as "an engineer's dream." It would split from the main path of the north-flowing Red River south of Fargo and angle west, where it would cross three larger and two smaller tributaries before re-joining the Red north of the city.
In times of serious flooding, water would first be stored in the 200,000-acre-feet staging area — the so-called Fargo Dam. The corps has proposed a ring dike to help protect homes and other structures in Oxbow, Hickson and a nearby subdivision, Bakke, but some residents don't like the idea of living in a bunker.
Although Fargo seems well prepared for this spring's flooding, the time is right to stump for a permanent solution, city commissioner Brad Wimmer said.
"This can't hurt our cause for the diversion," Wimmer said while watching volunteers fill sandbags. "We feel things are going according to plan to protect the city this year, but this does not stop the diversion. For the large flood, which we think is still on the way, the diversion is the answer."
It has been an up-and-down year for channel supporters.
State House Majority Leader Al Carlson, a Republican from Fargo, offered a proposal in February to keep the state from paying for the diversion or home buyouts until Congress decides to pony up for the project. "The old saying still applies: Show me the money," Carlson said. Lawmakers later said they would commit to its $450 million share of the project as soon as it receives federal authorization.
President Barack Obama didn't allocate funding for the project in his proposed 2014 budget. North Dakota's congressional delegation said it was surprised and disappointed by the omission and vowed to press on, which it did by convincing the Office of Management and Budget to increase the money allocated this year for design and analysis from $4 million to $7.4 million, despite the federal budget cuts.
Bice was neither surprised nor disappointed by the president's decision.
"You're flooding out communities and school districts and farmers," he said. "It's not a clean deal to sign your name on."
Bennett said that while North Dakota has the expertise and money — Gov. Jack Dalrymple has promised a blank check for the flood fight thanks to the oil-rich state's billion-dollar surplus — to hold back the water for another year, each year of flooding takes a psychological and emotional toll.
"That cost might be bigger than the economic damage," Bennett said. "If the big one doesn't come this year, it will come some year quite soon. That is why we need permanent flood protection."
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