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Officials seek long-term solutions for Red River flood control

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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, North Dakota.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

After last year's record flooding in the Red River Valley, state and local governments pledged to work together to find long-term solutions to flooding.   

The Red River Basin Commission is developing a plan for long-term flood control. The organization is holding its annual meeting this week in Grand Forks.  

Fargo-Moorhead is the focus of flood control efforts in the Red River Valley. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is developing plans for a diversion around the cities and local officials will learn more about those plans in early February. 

But the Red River Basin Commission is taking a much wider view. They are working on a flood reduction plan that will include the Red River and all of its tributaries. 

Minnesota State Sen. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said a comprehensive flood control plan is critical.

"We've got good watershed plans, county plans, city plans and all of that," Lanning said. "But we need a plan for the whole basin and one  people throughout the basin can buy into, endorse and support." 

Lanning authored a bill last year that appropriated $500,000 from Minnesota to develop a long-term plan; North Dakota also put up $500,000. 

Sandbags await deployment at the Fargodome
Sandbags await deployment at the Fargodome during the flood season of 2009.
MPR Photo/Stephanie Hemphill

The first part of the plan will focus on flooding. The basin commission will also study water quality and water supply in the future. 

Lanning said right now everyone is focused on a diversion to protect Fargo-Moorhead.  But he said comprehensive flood control must also include dams on rivers to hold back water, and restored wetlands to help slow spring runoff. 

"If our whole focus is on diversion and levees, there are colleagues of mine in the Legislature who are going to say, 'Wait a minute, what about retention?' What about preserving and enhancing wetlands,?'" he said. "So it's got to be a comprehensive plan. We can't put all of our eggs in a diversion basket or this thing is not going to work."

There's a long history of political battles over water storage in the Red River valley. 

Red River Basin Commission Director Lance Yohe is well aware reaching consensus across three states, two countries and dozens of local governments won't be easy. 

"Everybody said let's have storage, but storage always means upstream of where you are, on somebody else's property," Yohe said. "So how do you do storage on somebody else's property and make it fair to them, when the benefits may not even be there for them?" 

Yohe said developing computer models for every stream in the Red River basin will help show local officials the best places to store spring runoff. 

Yohe said after holding 20 public meetings across the Red River Valley this winter, he's more confident a solution can be found. He said everyone seems to realize flooding is a problem that won't be easily fixed. 

Homes are surrounded by ice and flood water
Homes are surrounded by ice and flood water from the Red River March 29, 2009 near Fargo, North Dakota.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

"This is our time, for our generation, to make a difference for the next generation," he said. "It's been given to us an opportunity to do that. We got this money. The Legislature's got their ear tuned to us. It's our job to do it, and that's what we're trying to get people to understand. They're part of this, they're part of the answer, [and] they're part of the solution." 

The Red River Basin Commission will present its recommendations to the Minnesota and North Dakota legislatures a year from now. Yohe said the details of specific projects are best left to local watershed boards, counties and cities. 

But Yohe said the study could serve as a blueprint for the next 50 years, and he hopes the study recommendations will serve as a guide for lawmakers as they consider what kinds of projects to fund in the future.