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New conservation programs to help mitigate Red River Valley flooding

MOORHEAD, Minn. – Two farmers signed agreements Thursday allowing their land to be used for a small water retention project in a kickoff highlighting new conservation programs to help mitigate flooding in the Red River Valley.

The signing came as Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., highlighted provisions in the new farm bill that designate the Red River Valley as a priority area for farmer-friendly conservation programs that can help fund water retention projects.

“We will be able to move on projects in the valley before anyone else in the country,” Peterson told an audience of water officials, including members of the Red River Retention Authority, which coordinates water projects in partnership with landowners and local watershed districts.

Peterson noted that almost 100 potential projects have been identified in the Red River Valley that can receive funding through the farm bill programs he helped push through Congress.

“What’s going to make it work is willing landowners,” Peterson said. “We’ve had trouble with that in the past, but that seems to be changing.”

The new programs offer more flexibility and more benefits to landowners. Significantly, he said, farmers and ranchers will be able to continue to graze or farm land that can be used to hold back water.

“So this is a big change,” Peterson said. “This is what’s going to make it work.”

Don Baloun, the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Minnesota state conservationist, agreed that the new programs offer flexibility for farmers and other rural landowners.

“We want it to stay in ag use, we want it to be grazed,” he said, referring to conservation acres that can be used for retention as well as grazing or cropland.

Water officials in the Red River Valley are working toward a goal of reducing peak flood flows on the Red River by 20 percent by temporarily storing water in restored wetlands and other projects.

Accomplishing that will require many small projects up and down the valley, Peterson said.

He noted that some were calling for creation of a federal authority to oversee retention in the Red River Valley. That option lacked support, including from Peterson and the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota.

Instead, the two states joined to form the Red River Retention Authority, composed of representatives from local water boards on both sides of the river who work with landowners.

“The local people are running this,” Peterson said. “I think we’ve got the right structure.”

John Finney, co-chairman of the Red River Retention Authority and chairman of Minnesota’s Red River Watershed Management Board, said a lot has been accomplished since the 2009 flood.

“We’ve come a long ways, we have a long ways to go,” he said. “We’re going to move forward.”

Bill Hejl, who farms near Amenia in northern Cass County and serves on the Rush River Watershed District, said farmers are very interested in the benefits of conservation programs with retention potential, and predicts farmers will sign up once they become familiar with the programs.

The new programs’ greater flexibility “has changed everything,” he said.

More projects will be identified when John Vilsack, the U.S. agriculture secretary who designated the grasslands surrounding the Red River Valley as one of eight priority areas, is scheduled to visit the area July 2.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to