More than 20 years ago, Gerald Groenewold was flying over the Red River Valley checking out a flood. From the air the region looked like a waffle, with each square full of syrup. That's when Groenewold got the idea for the Waffle Plan.
Today, Gerald Groenewold is the director of the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota. He says there are two ways to deal with a flood -- move cities and towns away from the river, or change how the water moves.
"We're not removing water from the system, we're only slowing its movement. The same amount of water is going through at any point, and the only question is how fast is it going through?" says Groenewold. "If you can slow it down, you'll decrease the level of the water, you'll minimize the chance of flooding."
The waffle plan is simple. Existing roads serve as levees to store water in farmers' fields. The potential for storage is amazing. One square mile storing water a foot deep would hold more than 200 million gallons of water. Special culverts would manage the water flow to prevent roads from washing out.
This year, flooding in the Red River was caused by a rapid snow melt. Groenewold says if the waffle plan had been in place, the runoff could have been managed in stages, giving the river time to absorb the water.
The plan has its critics. Some farmers fear storing water will delay spring planting or hurt crop yields. Bethany Bolles, research manager for the project, says field tests on a one-square-mile section of land near Shelly, in northwest Minnesota, should comfort those critics.
"The end of the year we did look at crop yields between that site and adjacent sites, and we saw no difference in crop yields," says Bolles.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has spent $4.8 million to research the waffle plan. Critics say the money would be better spent building more dikes to protect cities and farmsteads.
Gerald Groenewold says the waffle plan can also be used to fight drought. He says if the waffle plan is implemented across the Red River basin, the water could be used to restore area aquifers.
"The time is now to capture the excess water we have in the spring and inject into those aquifers," says Groenewold. "That is a major long term viable source of water for this area."
Proponents of the waffle plan concede their biggest hurdle is changing farmers' attitudes. Project Manager Bethany Bolles says farmers are wary about storing water on their land.
"This fundamentally goes against common practice. More and more efficient drainage systems are being used to make sure the drainage is as efficient as possible," says Bolles. "In fact, probably too efficient, and so this goes against convention."
The pricetag to implement the waffle plan across the Red River basin is estimated at $50 million. The protective dike system in Grand Forks cost $397 million.
John Scott, who farms near Gilby, North Dakota, thinks the waffle plan is a good idea. He says it's one way to extend flood protection around the region.
"All it would take is to look at this with common sense, and spread out the $300 or $400 million they spent in Grand Forks and protect little towns and farms and everything," says Scott.
When research on the waffle plan is completed it will be turned over to local, state and federal officials. Gerald Groenewold says what happens then lies in the hands of the people. The Energy and Environmental Research Center has no authority to implement the plan.