Fargo-Moorhead grapples with prospect of $1 billion flood diversion plans

A home is surrounded by flood water from the river
A home is surrounded by flood water from the Red River March 29, 2009 near Fargo, N.D.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Army Corp of Engineers has been crunching numbers for months to find the most cost-effective flood control options for the cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.

This past spring, Fargo-Moorhead narrowly averted a catastrophic flood. The Army Corps of Engineers is developing plans for levees or diversion ditches to protect the cities during a flood.

Documents:

500-year flood projection (PDF)

Diversion plan (PDF)

Many people say this is the right moment for a permanent solution to the yearly flood worries.

For the past two evenings, hundreds of Fargo-Moorhead residents attended public meetings to learn about potential flood control projects.

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Mark Fossum lives near where one of the proposed diversion ditches would join the Red River. He pressed Army Corps official Kevin Bluhm about how that would affect water levels on his farm.

"You're right," Bluhm said. "We don't really know what it's going to do, they tell us what they think it's going to do but we don't really know."

Flood meeting
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Manager Craig Evans explains flood control options to local, state and federal officials in a meeting room at the Marriott Hotel in Moorhead, Minn.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The problem is the project designs are all preliminary, so specific questions are hard to answer.

Mark Fossum says he's certain a Minnesota diversion will run near his farm. He wonders if he will still have a farm.

"Who wants to move? These are family farms, this is our livelihood," he said. "What are you supposed to do? Where are you supposed to build? Everybody has their concerns and so do we. [It's] a lot to think about for everybody."

Many Fargo-Moorhead residents favor a diversion ditch to route part of the Red River around the cities. The ditches could be from a quarter- to a half-mile wide and 15 to 20 miles long.

Bluhm says he was a little surprised by the public interest in the flood control projects, but he says it's good to see the community actively engaged in what will be a massive project, with a price tag projected to be near $1 billion.

"A project this size has never been built in the region," Bluhm said. "The Grand Forks project is in scale of magnitude a fraction of this. I think it's going to take a little time for people to digest what we've given them."

There's not a lot of time. The Army Corps of Engineers needs input in the next month from local officials on which plan they prefer. The Corps wants to narrow the project options to one by January.

Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said there are more questions than answers for many residents, but he said it's critical everyone agree to support a plan. Without local concensus, the Corps will not build a flood control project.

"I think this is a once in a lifetime opportunity," he said. "Part of the challenge is it's a short period of time to do a lot of work and make a lot of decisions. Our local leaders are going to have a big burden to get through all of that, but I have confidence we'll get there."

The Army Corps of Engineers will take public comment on the proposed flood control plans for about a month. In January, they expect to be back in Fargo-Moorhead holding more public meetings to talk about the plan they will take to congress for funding.

The earliest construction could start is 2012 and the project would take at least four years to complete.