'History in the making': Diverted waters: A long history of flooding leads to massive, contentious project

FARGO-Red River flooding has been a constant threat throughout the history of Fargo-Moorhead.Some of the cities' earliest residents have been photographed paddling boats as homes were knocked off of their foundations. And in the decades since, th...
The Red River at left floods a neighborhood south of Fargo on Wednesday, March 17, 2010. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO-Red River flooding has been a constant threat throughout the history of Fargo-Moorhead.

Some of the cities' earliest residents have been photographed paddling boats as homes were knocked off of their foundations. And in the decades since, the cities have taken various measures to beat back the sleepy river that swells with the melting snow.

Today, the stakes are higher. Almost 240,000 people call the Fargo-Moorhead metro area home, and the two cities form the region's economic engine.

With memories of close calls from recent flood fights fresh in their minds, local leaders are pushing for what they see as a permanent solution to the area's flood woes: A massive public works project that will divert flood waters around the metro.

Diversion proponents say the project will make the heroic spring sandbagging efforts a thing of the past and help protect life and property. But it will also mean land south of the metro will be covered with water during severe floods, prompting opposition from those who live upstream. Opponents filed a lawsuit almost four years ago against the $2.2 billion project, which remains active even as construction gets underway.

Project supporters are confident their arguments will prevail. For now, they're hopeful the project will be complete in 2024, 15 years after the highest recorded river crest nearly resulted in disaster in Fargo-Moorhead.

"Really the last remaining municipality along the Red River Basin that really has had any comprehensive or large-scale flood damage reduction infrastructure project is Fargo-Moorhead," said Chuck Fritz, director of the International Water Institute in Fargo. "Fargo needs to do something, and now we're just arguing about what's going to happen."


The warning came in the form of a letter to Fargo newspapers.

A person identified only as "Old Settler" told readers in March 1897 the city would see a major flood.

"There are those that will say that the Red River Valley will not be flooded again, because the valley is all broken up now and water will soak into the soil more rapidly," the letter, posted on the State Historical Society of North Dakota's website, reads. "Let me say that the Red River Valley is made by floods."

The Old Settler's prediction came true. The Red River crested at 39.1 feet at Fargo less than a month later, a record that stood for 100 years, according to the National Weather Service.

The Red River Valley, once the floor of Glacial Lake Agassiz, has long been prone to flooding, given its flat terrain, weather patterns and the northern flow of the river. Since 1897, there have been 20 crests above 28 feet, a river height that forces closure of the former toll bridge connecting Fargo's 12th Avenue North and Moorhead's 15th Avenue North.

The region's propensity for flooding has made its residents accustomed to the consistent battles with the rising Red River.

"You just became used to dealing with the floods, allowing more time to get things done, moving things out of the cellar, whatever you needed to do to get by," one Moorhead man said in the wake of the 1943 flood, according to Terry Shoptaugh's book, "Red River Floods: Fargo and Moorhead."

Shoptraugh's collection of historic photos shows the cities faced persistent threats in the late 19th century and through much of the 20th century. As the historic flood inundated the area in 1897, rail cars and farm equipment were used to anchor the bridges between the two towns, which "began to resemble Venice, Italy" as residents used boats to travel, he wrote.

In 1943, several hundred homes and businesses were severely damaged by the time the river crested, Shoptaugh wrote, and about five feet of water covered Broadway just nine years later, when the Red reached 28.8 feet at Fargo.

But the worst floods have come in recent history as six of the 10 highest Red River crests at Fargo have occurred in the past 20 years.

Near disaster in 2009

The 1897 record flood was surpassed in 1997, the year that the Red River overwhelmed Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. That record was again broken in 2009, an event that diversion proponents often cite as evidence the metro needs a permanent flood protection project.

"There was a lot of luck involved," said Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, vice chairwoman of the Diversion Authority, the group of local leaders overseeing the project. "It's just statistics. It's going to happen again in some kind of way."

The 2009 flood fight required 69 miles of "emergency measures," and more than seven million sandbags were used, according to a presentation given earlier this year by April Walker, Fargo's city engineer. Volunteers frantically filled sandbags at the Fargodome as the Red River crept up the Main Avenue bridge between Fargo and Moorhead on March 27 that year, a day before the river crested 40.84 feet.

But it almost wasn't enough.

"The 2009 emergency flood fight was successful only because Fargo citizens refused to evacuate when advised to do so, and the emergency levees came very close to overtopping," Terry Williams, the Army Corps of Engineers program manager for the diversion project, wrote in a May 31 court filing responding to opponents of the project.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, then a city commissioner who now chairs the Diversion Authority, remembers that a group of neighbors swooped in to fix a leaking sandbag wall in the middle of the night during the 2009 flood fight. Federal officials were surprised by the swift action, but it was evidence the city's residents had become experts in fighting floods.

But those large-scale responses, while successful in avoiding the kind of devastation seen in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, take their toll on people and the economy, diversion proponents say. The diversion would provide 100-year flood protection, which is estimated to take 11,000 Fargo homes and about 800 Moorhead homes out of the future Federal Emergency Management Agency floodplain, said project spokesman Rocky Schneider.

"Clearly after the 2009 flood, there was a recognition that we needed to do more," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who was North Dakota's governor at the time.

Developing the diversion

On a recent hot day, construction crews south of Horace seemed to be accomplishing little more than moving around dirt and kicking up dust. But a closer look revealed the rough outlines of a pivotal piece of the Fargo-Moorhead diversion.

It's at this site that an inlet structure will be erected to regulate the flow of water into the 36-mile diversion channel, which will wrap around the west side of Horace and West Fargo on its way north before meeting the Red River near Georgetown, Minn.

The overall project is years away from completion, but the first shovels in the dirt are a welcome sight for project planners who have seen it develop for almost a decade. The feasibility study that ultimately resulted in the diversion project began in September 2008, less than a year before Fargo-Moorhead residents rallied against the historic flood.

Numerous options were outlined in a 2011 corps report, including reconstructing Interstate 29 into a viaduct during floods, building tunnels to divert water under the communities and digging the Red River channel deeper and wider to allow more water to pass through.

"Having been with the project from the very beginning, I can't imagine that every stone hasn't been turned," said Darrell Vanyo, former chairman of the Diversion Authority. "So the idea that we haven't studied all the options is totally without merit."

Governing bodies in Cass and Clay counties ultimately voted in favor of a North Dakota diversion in 2010, but the project didn't win congressional authorization until 2014. About half of the funding is expected to come from local sales tax proceeds, while the federal government and state of North Dakota would largely fund the other half. Minnesota would pick up a small portion of the bill under current plans.

While the largest single portion of the $2.2 billion price tag is the cost of constructing the diversion channel and associated infrastructure, $426 million is meant for land acquisition and mitigation. Between the entities involved in the Diversion Authority, more than 700 homes have been acquired to make way for flood protection, Schneider said.

Not without opposition

As a group of dignitaries scooped up shovels of dirt to mark construction at the inlet structure site, project opponents came in protest. One woman, confronting North Dakota's two U.S. senators, held a sign that asked, "Where's your permit?"

The scene was a reminder that, even as shovels go in the ground, the project remains in somewhat of legal and regulatory limbo.

The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, representing communities upstream of the project, filed a federal lawsuit in 2013. They argued project sponsors unnecessarily expanded the project to protect undeveloped floodplain and promote future development while intentionally flooding "large areas of valuable high ground, including communities and prime farmland."

The project opponents in the upstream area, or south of Fargo-Moorhead, worry about the staging area adjacent to the southern embankment, where water will collect during severe floods before going through the diversion channel and the Wild Rice and Red rivers.

Mark Askegaard, who farms almost 1,000 acres south of Moorhead, said the project would inundate "basically everything that I farm" to varying degrees. That would delay planting and affect crop rotations, he said.

Askegaard said he recognizes the need for better flood protection in the Fargo-Moorhead area, but he believes there are better options available. He questioned why construction is underway despite the active lawsuit.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources denied a permit to build a dam across the Red River in October, arguing that emergency measures like those used during the 2009 flood fight and new dikes should be enough. The DNR has since joined the Richland-Wilkin JPA in its lawsuit against the corps and Diversion Authority.

"We have legislators and representatives who are concerned about the overreach of the federal government, but at the same time we're encouraging the federal government to overreach on state rights," said Nathan Berseth, a Richland County commissioner and spokesman for the JPA.

The DNR "has determined that this project does not meet Minnesota's standard of being reasonable and practical to protect public safety and promote public welfare," Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said in a statement. "Additionally, the project application failed to demonstrate sufficient measures to mitigate the negative impacts of this project on the surrounding area."

The corps has argued federal agencies are generally immune from state regulations, and project supporters have said they've aimed to minimize its adverse impacts while outlining plans to provide compensation to affected property owners. Mahoney said he's empathetic to those who will make sacrifices for the diversion.

"You still have to do what's good for the better of the whole," he said.

Fritz said the kind of disagreement caused by the diversion project isn't uncommon. In fact, he said, it's closer to the norm for water projects.

"I have never seen a project anywhere on the Red River Basin where there's 100 percent consensus," Fritz said. "Any kind of water project, I don't care what it is, it's always controversial."

Despite the outstanding legal questions, the project is moving forward. Schneider said they expect a developer to be on board and construction to begin on the diversion channel, which is being completed through a private-public partnership, in the third quarter of 2018.

"We were authorized to construct by Congress, we were funded by Congress to build this project and that's what we're doing," Williams said. "We're moving forward."

Timeline of diversion progress

2008: Fargo and Moorhead agree to share cost of metro-wide flood protection project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

2009: The Fargo-Moorhead area fights its biggest flood to date, giving the project greater urgency; today, that flood is considered just a 50-year event. Fargo voters approve ½-cent sales tax for flood control. The Metro Flood Study Work Group, comprised of 11 elected officials from Fargo, Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties, and the Buffalo Red River Watershed District and Southeast Cass Water Resource District, is formed to work with the Corps of Engineers to determine a flood protection plan.

2010: Local officials continue pushing a diversion in North Dakota instead of cheaper options in Minnesota because it would give Fargo-Moorhead a fighting chance against a 500-year flood. The corps later determines a diversion of any kind would send too much floodwater downstream, sparking opposition from northern communities. The corps and local officials plan an upstream dam to reduce flow, sparking opposition from southern communities. Cass County voters approve a ½-cent sales tax to pay for flood control.

2011: The Diversion Authority forms. The corps increases its definition of a 100-year flood while the Federal Emergency Management Agency also bumps up the 100-year floodplain for its federal insurance program. Local and federal leaders sign the Corps of Engineers’ chief’s report, a step allowing Congress to consider authorizing and funding the diversion.

2012: The Obama administration offers formal support for the project. Upstream diversion opponents form the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority. Fargo voters approve a ½-cent sales tax for the diversion.

2013: The Richland-Wilkin group files a lawsuit against the diversion.

2014: Congress authorizes the project.

2015: The judge orders work on the Oxbow ring dike, a part of the project, to stop until the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources environmental review is done. Local governments vote to allow special assessments to pay for the diversion to get better interest rates despite opposition by many property owners.

2016: The judge dismisses the corps from the lawsuit. Congress appropriates funds for the project and the corps signs an agreement to begin work on the project in the fall. The DNR denies a dam permit for the project. Fargo and Cass County voters approve extending existing sales taxes to pay for flood control.

2017: A federal judge allows the Minnesota DNR to join the lawsuit against the project and later agrees to bring the corps back into the lawsuit. Construction begins at the future site of an inlet structure south of Horace. Court lifts part of the injunction against the Oxbow ring dike.

2024: Planned completion of the diversion.