Major Upper Midwest flooding feared

Predictions suggest spring flooding will certainly top last year and may be as bad as 1997.

BY JOHN PAPE | BALTIMORE | January 28, 2011

"You’ve got people who have to worry about their homes year after year and business owners who wonder if their livelihood will be flooded every spring."

—Fred Karlsen

With forecasters predicting possible record flooding this spring along the Red River of the North, local authorities in North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba are taking steps to protect vulnerable communities across the region.

Based on early predictions, some areas are bracing for a flood that could easily rival, or even surpass, the “flood of the century” in 2009.

The 2009 snowmelt, coupled with rainfall, brought more than a week of flooding to the Fargo-Moorhead area before moving north through Manitoba where the river empties into Lake Winnipeg.

During a recent briefing for emergency planners and the media, National Weather Service Meteorologist Greg Gust painted a potentially dire outlook, noting precipitation levels across the Red River Valley were on track to equal 1997, when spring flooding all but wiped out communities like Grand Forks.

Gust said there was a 20 percent chance the river would exceed 2009 levels in Fargo and Moorhead, and a 50 percent chance it would top last year’s crest, the sixth-highest on record.

Gust told the crowd the forecast “starts to make a weather guy nervous.”

He compared the forecast to a “three-legged stool,” that included precipitation, existing moisture content and the anticipated spring thaw. Gust said the potential impact for precipitation and existing moisture was already “very high” and forecast models were indicating a cool, stormy and wet spring.

“The first two legs of the stool have been knocked out from under us; that third leg is awfully wobbly. I don’t feel good about it at all,” Gust said.

The assessment found 2010 summer and fall rainfall across the Red River Valley was roughly 50 percent above normal, leaving the soil virtually saturated even before the winter snows set in. So far this winter, the Fargo area has received more than 55 inches of snow, nearly 16 inches more than is typical for an entire winter season.

The last key component will be the spring thaw. If the Red River thaws quickly, communities throughout the region could see significant flooding.

Current plans have Fargo relying heavily on sandbags and temporary dikes to protect the city, much as they have in recent years. The city currently has a major flood control project in the works that may provide additional protection, but it not is expected to be fully completed in time for the spring thaw.

The $7.9 million Ridgewood Flood Control Project is designed to protect riverfront areas in the Ridgewood Addition in north Fargo. The project includes a series of earthen levees and concrete floodwalls designed to protect against a flood stage of roughly 45 feet. River levels during the 2009 flood reached 40.82 feet.

When the Red River reaches the official flood stage of 18 feet, flood-prone Elm Street is closed. If the river is projected to rise to more than 35 feet, the city will erect a portable floodwall across Elm Street at 15th Avenue North.

According to the city, the combination of expanded levees and portable floodwalls is intended to protect the Ridgewood area, as well as storm and sanitary sewer systems.

Construction of the project began in the fall of 2008 with the installation of new storm sewer piping. Rock rip-rap was also installed on the river banks to slow the effects of riverbank erosion.

In the summer of 2009, construction crews began rebuilding and raising earthen levees and installing concrete floodwalls.

On a larger scale, Fargo, Moorhead and Cedar Rapids are all working with the Corps of Engineers to obtain funding from Congress for additional flood control.

Cass County, where Fargo is the county seat, has already established a special tax to help fund its anticipated match of any federal or state funding that may be granted. During last November’s election, Cass County voters approved a one-half-percent sales tax to fund flood control efforts. That tax is expected to generate an estimated $420 million over a 20-year period.

One major regional flood control plan under consideration is a diversion channel running west of Fargo that is intended to carry floodwaters away from more populated Fargo-Moorhead area. The 30-mile channel would be approximately 20 feet deep, 500 feet wide at the bottom and have a total footprint of 2,000 feet, including berms.

The proposed channel carries a hefty $1.5 billion price tag and would require the construction of 17 highway bridges and four railroad bridges.

Another option under consideration is to construct higher permanent levees. That project is estimated at $600 million.

Despite the cost estimates, flood control authorities are convinced the projects are worth the investment. Last year, the Corps of Engineers estimated if the Fargo-Moorhead levees failed during the 2009 floods, the damage would have exceeded $2 million.

Fargo resident Fred Karlsen said he voted for the Cass County sales tax because “it’s high time they got serious about a solution.”

Karlsen said he’s endured “at least three ‘floods of the century’ in the Fargo area.

“At some point, they need to realize that filling sandbags every spring isn’t the solution. We’re still getting flooded; we’re still losing homes and property; now we’re being told to expect to get flooded again,” Karlsen said. “There’s just got to be a better solution than sandbags year after year.”

Karlsen said he wonders if the lack of a more permanent solution to spring flooding will eventually hurt the community.

“You’ve got people who have to worry about their homes year after year and business owners who wonder if their livelihood will be flooded every spring. I know some people get used to it as part of life in Fargo, but I don’t think we can always count on that; at some point people are going to get tired of it all,” Karlsen said.

Funding for the flood control projects suffered a setback in December when the U.S. Senate rejected the omnibus spending bill. That bill would have allocated $12 million for flood protection in the Red River Valley.

On the Canadian side of the border, Manitoba is also gearing up for the spring floods.

On Monday, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger announced the province will invest $22 million in equipment and technology to improve flood-fighting capacity and preparedness.

“We are combining our collective knowledge and considerable experience with technology and equipment in an effort to prepare for and manage the floodwaters that nature sends our way,” Selinger said. “Our province has experienced its fair share of flooding in the past and Manitobans know all too well the challenges that these events present to families and communities. From these experiences, we have also had the opportunity to test and enhance our emergency plans and procedures.”

About $21 million of the total will go towards acquiring resources and equipment as required to further support the level of provincial flood fighting and preparedness including:

• two additional mobile sandbag machines and related equipment for a total of five machines for deployment where needed;

• additional portable diking systems;

• 500,000 sandbags for a total of 2.2 million and 10,000 super sandbags for a total of 20,000;

• 20 new steamers and trailers for deicing drains and ditches for a total of 57;

• two additional ice-cutter vehicles for a total of seven;

• three additional amphibious vehicles for a total of six;

• more portable temporary bridges for use in restoring access if crossings are damaged;

• reinforcement of earthen dikes;

• computer software upgrades to collect and analyze water levels and flows; and

• expansion of the provincial emergency coordination center.

In the 14 years since the record 1997 flood, Manitoba has invested more than $1 billion in flood-protection infrastructure, most notably in floodway expansion and the enhancement of community ring-dike systems.

In addition to the $21 million for flood equipment and technology, Selinger also announced that up to $1 million will be made available for rural municipalities to start flood preparation work such as cleaning ditches, steaming culverts or constructing temporary dikes.

The province also it announced it will be issuing additional flood outlooks in February and March with more precise forecasts closer to the spring melt.

“Over the next few months, the province will continue to work with municipalities to plan and prepare for the potential of significant spring flooding,” Selinger said. “We will continue to provide updates so Manitobans can be aware and ready for any possible impacts in their communities.”

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