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Red River Basin Commission moves to start flood control planning

The Red River Basin Commission, made up of members from Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba, voted unanimously Thursday in Grand Forks to take a big step toward having more muscle and more teeth in controlling the increasingly unruly north-runni...

The Red River Basin Commission, made up of members from Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba, voted unanimously Thursday in Grand Forks to take a big step toward having more muscle and more teeth in controlling the increasingly unruly north-running river that unites and so often nearly wrecks the hundreds of communities represented.

The 30-some members attending the meeting at the Ramada Inn voted to authorize the Commission's staff to:

- Be in charge of spending the $1 million appropriated to it this spring by legislatures in North Dakota and Minnesota.

- Develop a plan for beginning a Basin-wide flood control process and submit it to the North Dakota State Water Commission and the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources.

- Get a widely flung survey done of the damage from this spring's flood and the possible problems and solutions to such a plan, including reviewing what's been done before so mistakes aren't repeated.

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- Find ways to leverage the $1 million by finding federal, state and local government funding sources for completing comprehensive flood prevention measures, again under the approval of the two state agencies.

"This is an opportunity for the board," said Jake Gust, an at-large member from West Fargo. "It's something we have been preparing for a long time. If we do it right, the commission will be elevated to new national and international levels."

Morrie Lanning, a state representative from Moorhead, (as well as former mayor and probable Republican candidate for Minnesota governor, told the group of about 60 today that today's meeting is a big milestone as the Commission marks its 30th birthday this month.

He was at the origin of the group formed after the flood of 1979 to find better ways to deal with the regularly flooding Red River, Lanning said.

"In '79, people from North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba got together . . . in Fargo . . . 30 years ago this month," Lanning said. "And we formed the first Basin-wide organization" to fight Red River flooding. "We need to celebrate this and underscore the importance of a Basin-side approach to solving this issue."

Jon Evert, who served as chair of the meeting, said it was clear a balance had to be struck between "the need for speed" in getting flood control projects going, while being "inclusive," and finding consensus from Wahpeton, N.D., to Winnipeg.

Judy DesHarnais, deputy for programs and project management for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Paul district, told the group that this year's flood fight by the Corps, including the local help in completing temporary diking, avoided an estimated $3 billion in damage in North Dakota and Minnesota, based on how high and far the flood waters would have gone without the emergency work.

To do that, the Corps itself spent about $40 million, she said, highlighting what a good deal it was.

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But it could have been much worse, except for some colder-than-normal weather, said Daniel Wilkens of the Sand Hill Water District in northwest Minnesota.

Wilkens said if not for "the good Lord" keeping the spring thaw three weeks late during the flood and slowing the melt, nothing could have been done to stop an historic flood of the most part of the Red River Basin.

If the spring melt had happened fast, as it often does, with the amount of water that came into the Red, Fargo would have been inundated and it's possible that Grand Forks' new dike system, built to handle 60 feet, might not have been enough, Wilkens said.

Hetty Walker, a commission member from Pembina, N.D., where she was mayor in 1997, said in her region, "the water is down but the tempers are up."

The flooding took weeks to subside, meaning businesses lost money and farmers couldn't get into fields and many roads were wrecked, Walker said.

"They are desperate," she said of her neighbors. "I can see it in their faces. . . It's time to start working on some retention or whatever we can do to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Commission members from Manitoba said not only did the weird spring flood cause lots of damage to homes, especially from rapidly formed ice jams on the Red, but the shutdown for weeks of highways meant big losses for local businesses.

The international Commission in its present form was organized in 2002 to achieve "basin-wide commitment to comprehensive integrated watershed stewardship and management." It is a nonprofit with a budget of about $1.3 million, but has no regulatory or enforcement powers.

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It aims at reaching useful agreement among all 42 board members representing the two nations, two states and one province, to forecast and manage floods better, while looking out for the environmental issues involved, including conservation and wildlife issues.

The Board is scheduled to report on initial planning by the end of the month.

For more information, log on to www.redriverbasin.com or call (218) 291-0422.

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

Related Topics: 2009 FLOOD
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