At a time when flood waters are threatening property and disrupting the economy across the Prairies, it seems odd to be on a bus tour showcasing projects that flood farmland on purpose.
But officials in the Northern U.S. have concluded flooding relatively small areas of farmland is better than the alternative. “Before the (North Ottawa water impoundment) project (spring run-off) water spread over 15 square miles,” John Roeschline, the administrator of the Bois de Sioux Watershed District, tells 110 participants in the Red River Basin Commission’s (RRBC) water retention tour April 26. “We’ve basically concentrated it into three square miles.”
As Roeschline speaks, participants huddle in the lee of a bus bracing against a steady drizzle and a strong, cold north wind. Sky and water are battleship grey.
The North Ottawa Project, named for the Minnesota township it’s in, captures runoff from a 75-square-mile area in the Rabbit River watershed. Diked fields can temporarily
store up to 18,000 acre-feet of water reducing the extent of flooding to nearby farmland and communities, including Breckenridge. (An acre-foot is one acre of land covered with one foot of water.)
This water eventually flows into the Bois de Sioux River, joining the Otter Tail River at Breckenridge to officially become the Red River of the North, or as Manitobans know it, the Red River.
Every drop held here reduces the Red’s peak flow, albeit by a small amount. But RRBC executive director Lance Yohe says if enough similar projects are built on the Red River’s tributaries,
it will make a significant difference for everyone affected by Red River floods, including Manitobans.
“The idea is if you can do it kind of overall, everywhere, then it has a cumulative effect,” he says following a nine-hour tour to existing and proposed water retention sites in North Dakota, Minnesota and South Dakota.
The RRBC was formed in 2002 as a grassroots group to tackle Red River flooding through a basin-wide effort, involving farmers, citizens, watershed districts and local, state and Manitoba governments.
The muddy Red has crested in Manitoba, but thousands of acres of farmland remain under water.
This year’s flood is the third largest since 1858, surpassing 1950, 1979 and 1996. The river is 10 km wide at Morris and it will be weeks before it slips back between its banks.
Despite the flood’s magnitude damage has been mitigated by protective measures – mainly dikes and diversions. The RRBC is proposing a new strategy: a system-wide effort to reduce the amount of water entering the Red River by storing it for a while and then releasing it.
The dikes protecting Grand Forks, N.D. would not have been breached in 1997 – the worst flood since 1826 – had peak flows been cut 20 per cent, Yohe says. That’s why RRBC’s goal is to lower the Red River’s peak flow 20 per cent before it reaches the international boundary. To do it will take one million acre-feet of temporary water storage.
CUTTING PEAK FLOWS
“It’s doable,” Yohe says. “If we… all start working towards it we can make a big dent on the flow reduction in this whole system by retention.”
Doable, but expensive. At a cost $1,000 per acre-foot, the total bill for one million acre-feet is about $1 billion over the next 10 to 20 years, he says.
A big bill, but nowhere near the cost of doing nothing.
The 1997 Red River flood – the worst since 1826 – caused $3.5 billion in total damages according to published reports, including $500 million in Manitoba. Despite all the flood-proofing before and after, including the Winnipeg Floodway completed in 1968, the 2009 Red River flood cost the province around $70 million.
The Manitoba government estimates the current flood, which includes more rivers and is wider spread, will cost $100 million.
Manitoba has spent $1 billion on flood mitigation over the past decade, Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Steve Ashton said in an interview.
Almost all the land required for temporary water storage in the U.S. is privately owned and most is farmed.
“It is possible to give farmers a fair deal,” Yohe says. “It is possible to use land that they’re not getting good production off anyway and make their other land better. And it is possible (in some cases) to continue to let them farm the land in the future when it’s not being used for retention. We’re trying to find ways that everybody wins and we don’t do something that makes it worse for somebody else. That’s the real key.”
Two-thirds of the North Ottawa land, now under 12 feet of water, will be seeded this spring, Roeschline says.
Some farmers opposed the $19-million project but most changed their minds because they get on their land faster now.
Dallas Israelson, who rents out most of his farm near Christine, N.D., 30 miles south of Fargo, is hoping the storage idea will be effective. He fears construction of a $1.7 billion floodway around Fargo will flood his land and home.
“I’ve got a concern because this diversion will flood people who normally don’t flood, to protect people who normally do.”
Run-off retention will help, but not replace a diversion, says Yohe.
Cutting the Red River’s peak flow 20 per cent on the American side will benefit Manitoba too.
“We applaud that approach,” Steve Topping, Manitoba Water Stewardship’s executive director of regulatory and operational services, said in an interview later. “This is very good work that they’re doing.”
For now the RRBC is focused on fleshing out potential projects and finding funding. One source could be the next U.S. Farm Bill, Yohe says.
“If we can get the money coming in for that and the process moving then we’ll have something to talk to Manitoba about,” he says.
The “D” word– drainage– is the elephant on the bus. It seldom comes up during the tour.
Drainage is a double-edged sword. It has enhanced the productivity of some of the best land in North America, but also increased run-off and sped it up.
Sometime in the 1890s the Minnesota government drained the Manston Slough, says Bruce Albright with the Buffalo-Red Watershed District.
“It just never worked,” he says.
Now there’s a plan to install a small dam to hold back 5,500 acre-feet of run-off and recreate 11,000 acres of those lost wetlands.
Just inside South Dakota, near the headwaters of the Red River and the continental divide, lingering snowbanks are visible atop the Coteau des Prairie to the west. Tom Martin, the district conservationist in Marshall County says South Dakota still has much of its wetlands, unlike neighbouring North Dakota and Minnesota.
“They’ve been converted for agricultural purposes and the water has to go somewhere,” Martin says. “It goes down to the next receiving individual and continues until it becomes a problem of too much water in the system.”
The conservation district wants to build a small dam in a ravine on farmer Carmen Lien’s land to hold back a relatively small 658 acre-feet.
“When I hear about billion-dollar diversions, the cost of storing water in these little structures like this is probably going to end up to be a lot cheaper in the end,” Martin says. [email protected]
– Steve Topping
– lance yohe