OSLO, Minn. -- Sons, daughters and, in some cases, grandchildren of landowners involved in a contentious legal battle 30 to 40 years ago over agricultural levees built on both sides of the Red River now are working together to develop their own plan they say could solve, once and for all, the chronic flooding problems that plague the region between Grand Forks and Drayton, N.D.
Members of the Border Township Associative Group, an ad hoc group representing seven counties and the city of Oslo, believe that the Oslo Bridge -- and another one 14 miles to the north -- block too much water at peak flood times, forcing floodwater to spread out over miles of farmland and cutting off access to Oslo, sometimes for weeks at a time.
"If the bridge at Oslo can handle 48,000 cubic feet of water per second and the river is flowing at 102,000 cfs, it's a guaranteed flood," said James Bergman, who lives in Higdem Township in Polk County, about 5 miles southeast of Oslo. "Right now when it floods, the water spreads out 8 or 9 miles," swamping roads, farm fields and isolating Oslo, a town of 325.
The answer, they say, is a new bridge at Oslo, as well as some river channel improvements at the Minnesota Highway 317 bridge, 14 miles to the north, to provide bridge openings large enough to proportionately match the peak river flows moving northward from Grand Forks to Drayton, N.D., and beyond.
The 317 bridge connects N.D. Highway 17, east of Grafton, N.D, with Minnesota Highway 317. The Olso Bridge connects N.D. Highway 54 with Minnesota Highway 1.
Besides turning Oslo into a virtual island, a flooded bridge cuts off direct access between Interstate 29 and several large businesses, including Digi-Key and Arctic Cat Inc. in Thief River Falls, forcing delivery services such as UPS and Speedy Delivery to make longer, more lengthy routes.
"The common goal is to keep the river in the channel," he said.
The group, which organized in November 2013, has one representative each from seven townships in the Oslo area, as well as from the city of Oslo.
- North Dakota: Turtle River Township (Grand Forks County); Walshville and Pulaski townships (Walsh County).
- Minnesota: Higdem (Polk County) Fork, Big Woods, Oak Park and City of Oslo (Marshall County).
Sharing the plan
The group recently printed a brochure, "Oslo Area Comprehensive Transportation Solution: The Time for Change is Now." Next, it will begin making formal presentations to the more than dozen local, state and federal agencies and other organizations that have a stake in the issue.
The first will be March 16, before the Middle-Snake‐Tamarac Rivers Watershed District in Warren, Minn., according to Danny Omdahl, district administrator.
Omdahl planned to be in St. Paul this week for the Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts' legislative breakfast and reception. He also hoped to present the proposal to state Sen. LeRoy Stumpf and Reps. Deb Kiel and Dan Fabian.
The BTAG proposal calls for increasing the river channel, or waterway opening, at Oslo from the present 17,308 square feet to about 47,000 square feet, and the 317 bridge from 16,318 to about 51,600 square feet.
Existing waterway openings for the other Red River bridges include: Thompson, 34,239 square feet; Kennedy Bridge Complex (Grand Forks-East Grand Forks), 30,970 square feet; and Drayton, 57,623 square feet.
"Until we get the bridge openings large enough, we don't have the tools to fix this," Bergman said. "We view this as a first and absolute paramount step to solving this issue."
New Thompson and Drayton bridges have been built within the past few years.
BTAG modeled its proposal after the Thompson Bridge, which links Grand Forks County Road 7 with Polk County State Aid Highway 9, about 15 miles southeast of Grand Forks. The bridge was completed in 2011 for $7.2 million.
Diking first became a major issue in 1975 when Minnesota landowners hastily constructed dikes to stave off a summer flood. Some North Dakota landowners later did likewise.
In 1982, a lawsuit reached U.S. District Court in Fargo.
A federal court order attempted to solve years of bickering between landowners by setting Oct. 31, 1986, as the due date to lower dikes on both sides of the river to the level of a 36-foot flood crest at Oslo.
"That lawsuit was dicey times," said Craig Jones, who represents Walshville Township in Walsh County, N.D., but farms on both sides of the river. "You didn't bring up water with a bunch of Minnesota guys."
"Some guys, you knew you shouldn't, because they were more radical than the other ones," Omdahl said.
Attitudes have changed over the years, as farms have grown and technology and communication have improved, the latest generation agrees.
Several of the BTAG members went to school together, either at the old Oslo or Alvarado, Minn., schools. Today, those schools are part of the Warren-Alvarado-Oslo School District.
"A lot of us grew up together," said Cary Osowski, who represents Fork Township. He and his family now farm in Fork, Big Woods and Oak Park townships in Marshall County, as well as on the North Dakota side. "We got to know each other, not just because of being farmers, but as friends and neighbors. It's not our water that we're dealing with. It's water that's being pushed on us. You can't be mad at your neighbor."
BTAG members are well aware of the myriad of studies that have looked at potential solutions to flooding along the Red River.
About a decade ago, the Minnesota and North Dakota transportation departments considered, but ultimately set aside, a plan to replace the Oslo Bridge, which was built in 1959. The bridge was listed in fair condition in MinnDOT's 2013 bridge condition report. The report indicated 87 percent of the state's bridges were in good condition, 11 percent fair, and 2 percent poor.
Currently, the Middle-Snake-Tamarac Rivers district is in the early stages of an Oslo Access Hydraulic Analysis. The $75,000 Minnesota Public Facilities Authority Special Appropriation Grant was funded by the 2014 Minnesota Legislature.
The study is looking at the feasibility of potential flood control options 2 or 3 miles upstream and downstream of Oslo.
BTAG members are hoping that study also includes its proposal.
It also supports efforts by Northern Plains Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway to obtain funding to replace the century-old railroad bridge located just south of the Oslo Bridge.
"BTAG doesn't want to jeopardize any study that's going on, because it's all positive," Bergman said. "Our understanding is that the bridge opening is too small to allow the flow of water during a high-water event. We believe that if the bridge at Oslo and the 317 bridge were addressed proportionately to the Kennedy and Drayton Bridge, we believe it would be able to handle the water flow within the channel, and solve the access issue for Oslo."
To do that, however, it needs to convince local, state, federal and business interests.
"We're the local experts," Bergman said. "When you're going fishing, you want the expert marine biologist with you. But, by golly, you want the local guide driving the boat. We're viewing us as the local guides."
If they can get the other parties on board, they say it should spread out whatever cost to a manageable level, and the project could be accomplished within a reasonable amount of time.
"Let's try to corral this and get all of the horses pulling in one direction," Bergman said. "Then, I think we'd get something done and it would be easier than what people would imagine, if all the horses are pulling the same way."
And they're hoping they can resolve the issue before they pass the reins to their children or grandchildren.