Red River cities focus on permanent flood protection

John Brummer
John Brummer, who lives on Riverview Circle in Moorhead, stands on a dry sandbag dike in his backyard on Tuesday, April 30, 2013.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

Residents of Fargo-Moorhead are cleaning up sandbags and removing temporary levees after the Red River's crest last week. As it turned out, most of that emergency preparation wasn't needed for this flood.

Both cities are now turning their attention back to building permanent levees and flood walls.

Since the record flood in 2009, Moorhead has spent nearly $90 million buying homes along the Red River, replacing entire neighborhoods with five- to six-foot tall berms that serve as permanent levees.

Click for before and during scenes of this year's flood

News Cut: The last house standing on Riverview Circle
Photos: Fargo's 'Sandbag Central' volunteers reflect
Home buyouts in Fargo-Moorhead key to flood fight
Myriad factors led to off-base flood predictions

That work paid off this year, Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said.

"When we were planning for those stages of 39 and 40 feet, it was just a really different flood fight for us this year compared with 2009," Redlinger said.

In 2009, Moorhead used 2.5 million sandbags and eight miles of temporary earthen levees to hold back a 40.8-foot river level, protecting about 300 homes.

The same level this year would have required about 300,000 sandbags and a few hundred feet of clay levee to protect about three dozen homes. Flood preparation in 2009 cost $5 million in Moorhead. This year, even if the flood had reached the same level as 2009, city officials estimate the cost would have been about $1 million.

When predictions of a record flood evaporated this year, it meant Moorhead could wait until closer to the river crest to react.

The city has purchased 215 flood-prone homes since 2009 and would like to purchase another 15 to 20 homes.

Not all of those homeowners want to leave their river property.

"We worked together with the city and put down maybe 3,000, 4,000 bags," said John Brummer, who lives along the Red River in south Moorhead. His neighbors are all gone; their homes replaced by levees.

Brummer wants to stay and he is willing to put up with the cost and inconvenience of sandbagging.

"It is as nice as you will as a lake cabin in town that you can find. We like the convenience of here. We enjoy the nature," Brummer said. "If we don't have to make that change, we chose not to."

The buyout program is voluntary. If homeowners don't want to sell, the city will work around them and buy those homes as they come on the market in the future, Redlinger said.

John and Jeanie Brummers' neighbors on the river side of Riverview Circle took buyouts from the city and moved. A berm now helps to hold back the Red River.
MPR Photo/Nate Minor

Some homeowners who have turned down buyout offers complain the city has reduced the assessed value of their homes since 2009. That's part of the property valuation process, Redlinger said. There have been no market sales of riverfront homes since 2009, and Redlinger said the city is making fair market value offers. For some homeowners, those offers are now lower than they were in 2009.

Moorhead hopes to get a final $14 million infusion from the state this year that will pay for additional buyouts next year. That would bring total state and local spending on flood mitigation to $104 million since 2009 -- $73 million having come from the state and $31 million from Moorhead taxpayers. This will be the last year the city requests state funding. City funds will be used for any future home acquisitions, Redlinger said.

"So, by the time we get to the spring of '14 we really get after it," Redlinger said. "We hit it hard and we get the rest of these projects done within the '14 construction season, so that we're completely buttoned up and we've done as much mitigation as we can."

That would mean future floods up to 41 or 42 feet would be mostly a spectator sport in Moorhead.

The few remaining residents along the river could have to fill their own sandbags. The Moorhead City Council this summer will establish a new policy on future city involvement in fighting floods on private property.


Across the Red River in Fargo, permanent flood protection will take longer. The city is larger and has more riverfront to protect. Fargo has spent $57 million on new levees and home buyouts -- 101 homes since 2009, compared to Moorhead's 215 home buyouts.

Fargo city engineer April Walker said the city has a long list of desired home buyouts.

"The list is about 180 homes long and I think we've made progress with about 25 of those being committed to purchase right now," she said.

Several homeowners have contacted the city this spring to ask for a buyout offer. Walker said.

"The city did accelerate those offers and a lot of folks did accept them, but I think a lot of it was anxiety," Walker said. "Another year of doing this and here's an opportunity to not have to do it in the future."

Fargo expects to build more permanent levees this year and the city applied for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help build a $24 million floodwall to protect City Hall and the downtown business district.

The North Dakota Legislature recently authorized $450 million for flood control over eight years. The money would pay for levees and the state's share of the proposed $1.8 billion Red River Diversion project.

In 2009, Fargo residents approved a half-cent sales tax expected to generate $200 million over 20 years for flood control projects.

Leaders on both sides of the river say a combination of levees, floodwalls, and a diversion channel is the only way to protect Fargo-Moorhead from the big one -- a 500-year flood -- which would send water from the Red River seven feet higher than the current record flood.

If Congress authorizes and funds the diversion, construction will take about 10 years.

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