OSLO, Minn. – An upcoming bridge replacement project in Oslo presents an opportunity to mitigate the spring flooding that is a perennial problem on the Red River north of Grand Forks, according to the Border Township Associative Group, with members from North Dakota and Minnesota.
The BTAG’s proposed project, which includes replacement of two highway bridges, a railroad bridge and channel work, would cost an estimated $96.7 million and be conducted in three phases.
Frequent spring – and sometimes fall – flooding of the Red River at Oslo has destroyed agricultural land and caused multimillions of dollars worth of damage to the city of Oslo, hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage to railroads and stymied highway, interstate and rail transportation.
The Border Township Associative Group, made up of seven representatives -- one each from the townships of Turtle River in Grand Forks County, Pulaski and Washville in Walsh County in North Dakota and Fork, Higdem and Oak Park townships in Minnesota and the city of Oslo in Marshall County -- was formed in 2013 to devise an amicable solution to the flooding that for decades has been a frustrating and, sometimes, contentious issue.
The issue became so heated that about 40 years ago, the parents and grandparents of some of the same BTAG members who now are working together, were involved in a legal dispute over agricultural levees on both sides of the river.
The disagreement started in 1975 when Minnesota landowners built dikes to protect their land from a severe summer flood. Later, some North Dakota landowners countered by building dikes as well, and eventually, a legal battle erupted.
A federal court order attempted to solve the years of squabbling by setting Oct. 31, 1986, as the date dikes on both sides of the river be lowered to the level of a 36-foot flood in Oslo, according to Grand Forks Herald archives.
Since the 1980s, flooding in Oslo has exacerbated, frequently reaching levels of 38 feet.
“They’ve gotten worse as drainage has improved in the Valley. We’ve put more water into our ditches than our bridges can handle,” said Craig Jones, a BTAG member who represents Walshville Township and farms land on both sides of the Red River.
The severe flooding has resulted in Minnesota governors several times during the past few decades sending in the National Guard to help battle the water from reaching Oslo, which often becomes an island.
Engineering studies show that one of the reasons flooding water levels become so high at the Oslo and Highway 317 bridge is that their small openings, in comparison to bridges further north and south, bottle up the water. In turn, the floodwaters spread out for miles on both sides of the Minnesota and North Dakota border.
The Maris and Oslo bridges, for example, have waterways that allow 17,308 square feet of water to pass through. In contrast, new bridges at Drayton, N.D., 26 miles north of Oslo, allows 57,623 square feet to pass through, and at Thompson, 31 miles south of the Minnesota town, allows 34,239 square feet to pass through.
The BTAG project proposes that the Maris and Oslo bridges be replaced with structures that allow 47,000 square feet of water through them.
The 62-year-old Oslo Bridge is scheduled to be replaced in the next few years, and, rather than build a structure of the same size, members of BTAG say that a larger bridge should be built. Meanwhile, BTAG wants river channels at the Minnesota 317 Bridge, which is 14 miles north of the city, to be widened to allow more water to pass through.
The township group also proposes replacement of the 116-year-old Northern Plains Railroad Bridge, which runs parallel to the Oslo Bridge.
The Border Township Associative Group, which has sponsored studies on how to reduce flooding, has the support of local, state and federal stakeholders, but finding the money to fund the proposed solution is the challenge.
“No one argues with our premise anymore,” Jones said.
The group has identified about 20 agencies that could be potential funding partners, including the North Dakota and Minnesota departments of transportation, Federal Highway Administration and Northern Plains Railroad.
Members of BTAG are prepared to make a case for the project with the entities involved, in part, by showing to them a video that details the problems flooding has created and their proposed solution. Members have shared the video by Widseth, an architecture, engineering, environmental and surveying firm, on social media and plan to show it to federal, state and local governmental agencies in hopes that it will secure for them funding for their proposed project.
“I think the video has given us more traction,” said Jim Bergman, who represents Higdem Township and is one of BTAG’s founders.