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Fargo-Moorhead flood-fighting attracts coverage from New York

The Red River Valley's flood-fighting has attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal. That might be good news, as national media attention to the Flood of 1997 was said by community leaders and the congressional delegation to have made a ...

The Red River Valley's flood-fighting has attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal.

That might be good news, as national media attention to the Flood of 1997 was said by community leaders and the congressional delegation to have made a big difference in getting federal aid and volunteers from all over to help in the disaster and the recovery.

But what the Journal sees now is bickering in the months before a possible flood.

In an article published today and written by Joe Barrett, the Journal reported that the common effort seen last spring when 10,000 helped save Fargo and Moorhead from a record flood seems so over.

"Now, that unity is starting to show cracks," Barrett wrote.

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Plans to build a $1 billion-plus diversion ditch around the metro area of 200,000 people are not getting rave reviews downstream from smaller towns.

"Fargo officials say a permanent solution is essential to protect the region's cultural and business hub that year after year has fought off major floods, including one in 1997 that devastated Grand Forks 80 miles to the north," Barrett wrote.

"'Are we going to have to fail to get this moving?' said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, the city's former public works director who quarterbacked last year's flood fight."

"But downstream, in farming towns like Hendrum, Minn., population 300, anxiety and skepticism are high. In a flood, Hendrum, which sits amid snowblown fields in sight of the trees that line the river, could face an extra 10 inches of water because of the diversion -- enough to cut off the town completely, even if higher levees are built to protect it."

"'It's going to turn us into an island," Mayor Curt Johannsen said. 'Why have the small got to be sacrificed for the big?'"

It's always interesting to read the New York perspective on the Red River Valley's travails, and Barrett provides some perspective as well as bringing back traumatic memories for many here.

"As towns and farms developed in the rich lands along the river in the late 19th and early 20th century, the region was in a dry phase, experts believe," he wrote. "In some years in the 1930s, the river, which separates North Dakota from Minnesota and runs north into Canada, dried up in spots."

"Then a wet phase began about halfway through the past century, and the area began experiencing major floods on a regular basis. The flat terrain and the frozen ground as the water makes its way north intensify the problem."

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"In 1997, surging floodwaters forced the evacuation of 60,000 people and brought major downtown fires in Grand Forks. A more than $400 million levee and diversion-building effort has left that city well-fortified against flooding."

Part of the fun of the Journal article is reading the comments from readers from who-knows-where, some voicing displeasure at spending federal money on such projects and others takings shots at Fargo.

A "Robert E. Stassen" commented on Barrett's mention of the felt need here to protect the region's biggest "cultural and business hub."

"(A)n important part of the Fargo-Moorhead 'culture' is filling and stacking sandbags, and as such, filling out the region's TV newscasts," Stassen wrote. "If you removed this, there wouldn't be an annual event that drew people from the region together, hence, its culture would be gone."

Well, Fargoans might not feel like saying "yah, yahbetcha," to that.

Of course, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks -- which get no mention by Barrett - chose a dike system instead of a more expensive diversion that city leaders said would have taken too long to get approved.

But Fargo and Moorhead are looking at two basic diversion ideas: one to the east and one to the west.

Such a diversion would be the most cost-effective way to go, Aaron Snyder, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told Barrett.

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"Now, the project is racing the clock, Mr. Snyder said," Barrett wrote. "Local officials must decide by April whether to back a 25-mile route through Minnesota that would cost about $1.1 billion, with a local share of $577 million, or a 36-mile route through North Dakota that would cost $1.3 billion and carry a much larger local share of $729 million."

"The Corps of Engineers has backed the Minnesota route because it is more cost-effective and less complicated. The North Dakota route would have to cross five tributaries of the Red River but would also add protection by diverting the water from those rivers."

"In either case, Fargo and the state of North Dakota are expected to foot as much as 90 percent of the local costs, because they are expected to reap about that much of the benefits."

"That makes a Minnesota route a tough sell in some quarters. The city of Dilworth, Minn., has voted to oppose a Minnesota diversion, which would run to the city's east. 'It's going to cut off any chance of future growth for our town,' said Mayor Chad Olson."

Many figure the North Dakota ditch stands a better chance this year of approval because Sen. Byron Dorgan and his clout will be gone by 2011, Barrett reported.

Reach Lee at (701) 780-1237; (800) 477-6572, ext. 237; or send e-mail to slee@gfherald.com

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