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Published July 20, 2009, 12:00 AM

Retention might be smarter option than river diversions

There is little serious criticism of the considerable planning efforts for flood prevention going on in the Red River basin.

By: George A. Sinner, Fargo

There is little serious criticism of the considerable planning efforts for flood prevention going on in the Red River basin. Everyone is concerned. And I am certain that most involved know that there absolutely must be a “basin plan.”

We cannot plan with only “local” plans. Something like 100 communities have suffered in the past two floods, from Valley City to Lake Winnipeg, and up and down the many tributaries that flow into the Red.

In 1989, while I was still governor, three engineers from the Army Corps of Engineers office came into my office and asked me to help them get approval for two projects: first, raising Baldhill Dam, and second, building a huge “flood”-protection dam in the large valley above Baldhill Dam.

I suggested they raise the Baldhill Dam first and then come back and we would talk about the large new “dry” dam proposal. They did raise Baldhill Dam but did not finish it until later in the 1990s after I had left office.

As a result, the second meeting never took place, much to my regret. Their statements that the “additional dam” would do much to help the entire basin with its flooding problems were unforgettable.

During the International Flood Mitigation meetings that took place after the 1997 flood, another corps engineer told me that there is another site where a similar dry dam could be built that would also be of major help in reducing basin flooding. That site is north of Lake Traverse.

Certainly, diversion channels may need to be used in some places, but very careful consideration of their effect on lower stream communities must be extensively studied. Diversion channels often speed the floodwaters onto lower cities and cause much greater problems for everyone.

Diking (which is another form of diversion) will be needed in some areas, but dikes can also be deviously used to push water on someone else, as has been done on our northern border, where a “road dike” has caused huge flooding on the North Dakota side.

Retention capacity will help everyone. It must get first priority in a basin plan to reduce flooding. Minnesota has already put several small dams in place, and there is pretty clear evidence that, in even the huge flood this year, those dams helped. In addition, evidence indicates that on the North Dakota side, the Maple River Dam provided some measurable assistance.

A basin flood-control plan with a series of large and small, well-built retention dams as its core must be studied by responsible engineers with the entire basin’s welfare in mind.

Local ideas will help keep the issue fresh in the minds of all of us, including basin planners, who must bring these ideas together in a well-studied basin master plan.


Sinner, of Fargo, was North Dakota governor from 1985 to 1992.

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