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Phil Gerla, Grand Forks, column: Flooding requires multipart solution

By Phil Gerla CLIMAX, Minn. -- A recent Herald editorial suggests that acting on one or more existing technical plans will solve the flood problem in the Red River basin ("Don't redo existing flood studies," Page A4, Jan. 21). But for flood damag...

By Phil Gerla

CLIMAX, Minn. -- A recent Herald editorial suggests that acting on one or more existing technical plans will solve the flood problem in the Red River basin ("Don't redo existing flood studies," Page A4, Jan. 21).

But for flood damage mitigation to be truly effective, the effort needs to be far-reaching, including changes in public perception and action.

It's going to take leadership from organizations such as the Red River Basin Commission and widespread public involvement to effectively manage excess water. An extensive system of reservoirs, recommended in the 1960s, may help, but experience over the past few decades has shown that dams cost too much, need maintenance, permanently flood land, destroy wooded habitat, disrupt stream and river ecology and quickly lose storage capacity because of sedimentation.

One look at last spring's satellite images of the valley between Fargo and Halstad, Minn., shows that the Waffle Plan already functions in some areas and reduces downstream peak flow. Nonetheless, implementation would shift the burden of excess water to rural communities and farms and not provide the level of protection necessary in all areas.

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Floods occur in different places at various times, and they will catch us blindsided in the future as they has in the past. For example, the large English Coulee impoundment southwest of Grand Forks -- built at significant expense in response to the 1979 flood -- did little to protect the city in 1997.

Our best course of action will be to use all the flood protection tools we have, large and small, with careful planning, integration and implementation throughout the basin.

Two-stage ditch design, optimizing culvert size, restoring natural stream and river channels and floodplains, landowner incentives to maintain natural water storage and prairie restoration, among other techniques, can be used to reduce the capacity for the landscape to generate floods.

To protect our communities directly, dikes, levees, diversions, the building of impoundments in critical watersheds and removing flood-prone infrastructure will be necessary.

Unfortunately, even after the disastrous 1997 flood and the near-disaster in 2009, it is business as usual. Last summer, fields were scraped to further drain the little remaining natural storage. Homes continued to be built in flood-prone areas. Ditches were cleaned and culverts enlarged.

Given a return of spring 2009 conditions, the next flood will be worse for downstream cities such as Fargo.

Reducing flood damage will require cooperation from communities, agencies, organizations and many citizens throughout the Red River basin. We all will need to show more neighborly concern and sacrifice a little, rather than continue the upstream-vs.-downstream battle.

To this end, the Red River Basin Commission is reaching out to the public and providing the leadership that can make it happen. In this difficult role, the commission needs everyone's support.

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Gerla is an associate professor of geology at UND and prairie hydrologist for the Nature Conservancy of Minnesota and the Dakotas.

Related Topics: FARGO-MOORHEAD DIVERSION
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