The fields of soybeans, corn and sugar beets in the Red River valley are crisscrossed by a network of ditches built and rebuilt by farmers and the government to speed spring runoff and plant crops early.
Early planting makes for a better harvest, but rapid spring runoff increases flooding for cities downstream.
"The trick is to strike that balance," said Jon Roeschlien, administrator for Bois de Sioux watershed district. "How do we balance [agricultural] drainage and flood protection?"
Roeschlien, who oversaw construction of what's called the North Ottawa project, thinks he has the answer.
Grow the Future of Public Media
MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!
The permanent levee completed last year surrounds three square miles of farmland about 20 miles south of Breckenridge. Essentially, it's a shallow man-made lake holds all of the spring runoff from 75 square miles upstream. Gates can release the water slowly after the spring flood passes.
Roeschlin said the $19 million project in the southern Red River valley is a bargain, given the flood damage it eliminates downstream. It also will create much needed wildlife habitat.
State Department of Natural Resources and water management officials say the North Ottawa levee could be a model for future flood control efforts. It is designed to help reduce spring flow into the Red River at Breckenridge by 20 percent. To make that goal, the watershed will need another two dozen flood control projects.
Roeschlin said that means turning 20 square miles of farmland into flood storage.
"Less than two percent of the [agricultural] land in our district would have to be taken out of production to get that type of storage," he said. "That's not a lot. It shouldn't affect the economy much."
This one watershed covers less than 3 percent of the Red River Valley. Hundreds of similar projects will be needed in watersheds across the valley to reduce flooding all along the Red River and its tributaries.
Many farmers were skeptical of the project, but this year they saw benefits, Roeschlin said. Fewer farm fields in this area were flooded because all that water was not rushing toward the river overflowing ditches and spilling across fields.
"They said 'Wow, that North Ottawa project did a great job. We want one of them down in our area,' " he said. "It's usually 'not in my back yard,' but these guys are supporting it."
The project also has DNR wildlife manager Kevin Kotts smiling.
As he stood on the levee next to a sign designating the area a state wildlife refuge, Knotts looked out over a sheet of water that stretches for two miles. Howling north winds have ducks hunkered down among the cattails.
"It takes a lot of runoff to fill this thing," Knotts said. "It's going to look like an ocean out here."
The water is only a couple of feet deep now because managers are holding water to attract migrating ducks and geese. But in the spring, farm field runoff might collect 8 or 10 feet deep here.
When the project is finished, the three-square-mile impoundment will be divided in to nine ponds and wildlife managers will be able to move water from one to another. That would allow them to plant grain when the ground is dry and then flood it just before fall migration, giving ducks a place to rest and food to eat. They also could drain water from an area to leave large mud flats attracting shore birds.
"It's hard to think this big. Most of our units are pretty small and we don't have the ability to manage water like this," Knotts said. "Along with waterfowl benefits we really think we can do some good things for shorebirds. They've lost a lot of their habitat over the years too."
There could be many more of these projects in the next 10 years
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, DFL-Detroit Lakes, has pledged to use the farm bill to steer $50 million a year for 10 years toward such projects. Additional funding could come from state and local governments.
Lowering floodwaters by 20 percent will require an unprecedented pace of construction, said Roeschlin, the watershed administrator.
"We can't build one project every 15 years," he said. "We're going to have to have four or five of them going at a time. I think we can do it, but watershed boards are going to have to be making some pretty hard decisions and being real aggressive."
That might even mean taking land by eminent domain," Roeschlin said.
But he said the short-term challenges of building the projects will be outweighed by flood control and wildlife habitat benefits that could last generations.