Fargo-Moorhead developing permanent flood protection plan

New dikes go up
A temporary dike from last spring's flooding.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

About 75 people came to a public meeting in Fargo to hear the Corps' plan and to offer their own suggestions.

The Corps will spend the next 16 months developing a specific plan for flood control. Public Outreach Coordinator Kevin Bluhm said it's critical to get public input early in the process.

"If we don't do it now and we don't ask people their questions or opinions until we come with our grand plan, they just get their shotguns out and blow holes in it," Bluhm said. "So this does usually work much, much better."

Kevin Bluhm
Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Kevin Bluhm.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The Corps will come back with a grand plan in about 16 months. So far, they've considered two possible alternatives.

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One is a 30-mile channel to divert water around Fargo-Moorhead. It would be about 20 feet deep, 500 feet wide at the bottom with a 2,000 foot footprint including berms. (A berm is a raised barrier between two low areas.) It would require 17 highway bridges and 4 railroad bridges Cost: about $1 billion.

A second option is higher permanent levees. Cost: About $600 million.

Over the next year those options will be refined, and other ideas will be explored.

Mac Butler hopes there won't be just one solution. Butler lives in the Oak Grove neighborhood near downtown Fargo. His home is one of those the city wants to buy and replace with a levee.

Butler doesn't believe higher levees will solve the problem.

"Clearly they need a multifaceted solution. They can't continue to run increasing amounts of water through downtown Fargo," Butler said. "There's got to be ways to store the water, divert the water. Just building higher walls through downtown Fargo seems like an inappropriate solution."

The Corps of Engineers calculates that if the Fargo-Moorhead levees had failed this year, the damage would have exceeded $2 billion.

That's an important number, because any flood protection plan has to pass a cost/benefit analysis. The cost of protection needs to be less than the potential damage.

Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said passing that test shouldn't be a problem. Zavoral is concerned about the complexity of a project like a diversion channel.

"If you talk about a diversion, if it's not the money, it's the time," Zavoral said. "If you have one landowner who wants to hold you up you can be in court for a long time. And then a project you want done in a timely manner is just out the window. Will it happen? I'm not sure any of us can live that long."

Zavoral said the Corps has assured local officials the Fargo-Moorhead project is on a fast track. But he said it still seems like a very long process for people who just narrowly won an historic flood battle.

"If we get everything done in this accelerated time table it will be eight to 10 years, where normally its 10 to 15," Zavoral said. "So in their mind they're going at rocket speed and we're saying eight to 10 years! What's taking you so long?"

Part of what takes so long is a lot of detailed engineering work. But Corps spokesman Kevin Bluhm said congress created a lot of red tape for projects like these.

"The schedule we're on is going to be very hard to follow all of our compliance issues and do the proper design in the time frame we currently have," Blum said. "There are ways to speed that up but that will come from Congress, not from the Corps."

Congress is scheduled to get its first look at a Fargo-Moorhead flood control plan at the end of 2010.

If Congress approves, construction could begin in the spring of 2012.

In the meantime, local officials hope to move ahead with some smaller levee projects, which will provide short term protection and could be part of a long term solution.


Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated the wrong depth for the diversion channel because of incorrect information provided to MPR.