This week, city and county governments in the Fargo-Moorhead area formally approved a plan to build a $1.3 billion flood diversion.
The diversion faces financial and environmental hurdles and will take a decade to build.
Downstream communities fear the project will make floods worse for them. They say the only real solution is to build more dams to hold back water.
Curt Jacobson fought floods for 30 years on his family farm along the Wild Rice River near Ada, Minn. When he retired in 1998 he threw his energy into finding a solution.
He says there's been little progress in the past 10 years, but he's hopeful the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project will force a broader discussion about flood control.
I can guarantee you if we don't do this, things will get worse. We really don't have and option of maintaining the status quo and saying, 'Oh, we don't need storage.'Charlie Anderson, engineer
Jacobson now chairs a group of concerned citizens who worry a flood diversion for Fargo-Moorhead will mean worse flooding downstream.
He says large communities like Fargo-Moorhead get the attention and have political clout to get the projects they want, but small towns and farms just quietly fight floods year after year.
"The pressure, the animosity, just the loss of homes and loss of income and the fixing and repairing of all these floods has taken the wear and tear and we've killed people by the inch," he said.
Jacobson says Fargo-Moorhead needs a diversion, but he says that's only part of the solution. He says the entire Red River valley needs dams built on tributaries to store water during floods.
There's a long history of conflict over water in the Red River Valley. In the 1990s the conflict between draining and retaining water flared with lawsuits and a moratorium on new projects that stopped work on flood storage for several years.
If the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project is built, 30 miles to north, floodwater will be a foot higher around the small town of Hendrum, Minn.
Mayor Curt Johannsen says no farmers want to give up their land for water storage. So Johannsen favors a federal basin authority to implement flood control that benefits everyone, not just the large communities.
"We just keep bickering and bickering and bickering. And yeah, I don't want this water, I don't want to pay for this because it isn't going to help me. I don't want to give up my land," Johannsen said. "I hate big government, I like to keep things localized but I think it's time we have some federal authority come into the Red River basin and say this is what each of you in your watershed districts have to do to make it work. Someone needs to say quit your fighting and lets start doing it."
Johannsen says the problem has been studied to death. But most of those studies are gathering dust. The projects have never been built because of political opposition to the environmental impact of dams.
Engineer Charlie Anderson, a consultant for the Red River Basin Commission, a coalition of watershed organizations, has spent the past four years using a computer model to see how much storage would be needed to lower flood levels along the Red River and make floods more manageable.
He believes it's possible to store enough water to reduce peak floods on the Red River by 20 percent.
Anderson said each new diversion or levee system just makes flooding worse somewhere else. He says holding back floodwater on tributaries must be part of the solution.
"I can guarantee you if we don't do this, things will get worse. We really don't have and option of maintaining the status quo and saying, 'Oh, we don't need storage,'" he said. "We can live the the levels we've got. We'll raise our levees to match that. That won't work. Things will simply continue to get worse."
For his computer model, Anderson used data from the 1997 flood. He found reducing the Red River flow by 20 percent would have lowered the 1997 flood by 2.7 feet in Grand Forks.
Twenty percent less water in the Red River during a flood would require about 1 million acre-feet of water storage.
That's about 1,500 square miles with water one foot deep. The actual area would be much smaller because most water storage projects hold water several feet deep. Building all of that storage would cost at least $1 billion.
Anderson says given the current rate of spending on water storage projects in the Red River Valley, it would take 100 years to reach that goal.
He thinks it could be done in 25 years.
Anderson says as an engineer, he knows the best places to store water, but water storage is more than an engineering equation.
"You have to look at it from a number of aspects," he said. "What's technically possible, what's economically practical, what's socially acceptable and what's politically doable."
Political change could influence the equation.
Typically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't build flood retention projects because the flood control benefits are less than the project cost.
But that could change later this year when new rules allow the corps to also consider environmental benefits.
Col. Jon Christensen, commander of the St. Paul District, says that could mean more water retention projects.
"Of course you've got the balance you've got to stake between losing farmland and restoring wetlands which is always a battle," he said. "But this current administration has more of an emphasis on restoration of wetlands and environmental benefits so it certainly could start becoming competitive."
Minnesota and North Dakota are in preliminary discussions about a compact to guide future flood control projects. North Dakota Sen. Byron Dorgan says if the states can't agree to move forward, he will push for a federal Red River authority to manage the basin.