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Published June 07, 2009, 12:00 AM

Dams draw more attention but aren’t practical on Red

ENDERLIN, N.D. – On a recent windy spring afternoon, Mapleton Mayor Mark Anderson visited the Maple River Dam for the first time.

By: Jon Knutson, INFORUM

ENDERLIN, N.D. – On a recent windy spring afternoon, Mapleton Mayor Mark Anderson visited the Maple River Dam for the first time.

“It made a difference for us this year,” he said of the dam 10 miles northeast of Enderlin.

The $29.75 million dam, finished two years ago, was put to a huge test this spring.

By all accounts, the dam – which holds up to 60,000 acre-feet of water, or one foot of water spread over 60,000 acres – helped to reduce downstream flooding at Mapleton and elsewhere.

You’ll probably be hearing more about dams in coming months.

Massive Red River Valley flooding this spring sparked greater interest in – and could generate more public funding for – building new dams.

One measure of how more dams could help:

Building dams that hold the equivalent of 400,000 acres of 1-foot-deep water – or roughly the capacity of seven Maple River Dams – would reduce 100-year flood elevations in Fargo-Moorhead by 1.6 feet, according to a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The study also found that 200,000 acre-feet of storage would reduce the metro area’s 100-year flood elevations by 1.1 feet.

But no one expects a lot of new dams to be built.

Environmental concerns work against their construction.

So does the Red River Valley’s topography, which limits where and the number of dams that can be built.

Though dams have value, “they’re just one tool in our tool kit,” said Bruce Albright, administrator of the Barnesville, Minn.-based Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, one of 10 major watersheds in the Red River basin.

Other components of the flood-control fight could include more ring dikes and less building in flood-prone areas.

Another option – proposed in the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center’s “Waffle Plan” – is storing spring runoff temporarily in existing depressions, including fields, until major flood crests pass.

Dams on the Red?

Dams can be built to control flooding, create recreation areas, generate hydroelectric power or supply water for irrigation or to cities, or a combination of those uses.

This region has many smallish dams, typically built for recreation, but relatively few large ones designed to control flooding, said Jeff Volk, president of West Fargo’s Moore Engineering.

There are flood-control dams on some of the creeks and rivers that flow into the Red River, and more ultimately could be built in suitable locations, Volk said.

But it’s not practical to build dams on the Red itself, he said.

That reflects the flatness of the land in the heart of the Red River Valley. The land adjacent to the Red lacks the terrain into which a blocking structure could be built.

Storing water behind any such dam also would pose extreme difficulties.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘Dig a hole.’ But you just couldn’t dig one large enough to make a meaningful difference,” Albright said.

Other obstacles to building new dams include environmental concerns and objections from landowners.

People who lose property to accommodate a new dam receive “fair market value” for it, Albright said.

Still, landowners often have practical or sentimental attachment, or both, to their property and are reluctant to sell it.

That was the case with farmers who had to give up land to build the Maple River Dam, said Rodger Olson, chairman of the Maple River Water District, one of four districts that joined to build the project.

“There were strong feelings,” Olson said.

‘Adverse effects’

Dams can have many adverse effects, including the loss or decline of many native species of plants and wildlife, particularly fish, according to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site.

Genevieve Thompson, executive director of Audubon Dakota, which has a Fargo office, said alternatives to building new dams should be considered carefully.

Audubon Dakota’s mission is to conserve and restore natural ecosystems focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats.

Whatever else happens, new dams won’t pop up quickly, at least judging by the history of the Maple River Dam.

Its roots date to 1950, when Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study flooding in the Maple/Sheyenne/Red River basins in eastern North Dakota.

In 1986, the corps added the Maple River Dam to a flood-control plan, and eight years later the county water board applied to the corps for permission to build the dam.

Opposition to the dam kept construction from beginning until 2004.

“It was a long process,” Volk said. “But the results this spring alone made it all worthwhile.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jonathan Knutson at (701) 241-5530