Nearly 100 years ago, a powerful government department called for a diversion to help control Red River flooding.

It was never built.

Also not implemented was another eye-opening suggestion put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one it believed would increase the Red's capacity and therefore reduce flooding.

These nuggets and many others are contained in a 1922 publication titled "Report on Drainage and Prevention of Overflow in the Valley of the Red River of the North," written by P.T. Simons and Forest V. King, both identified as drainage engineers for the USDA.

Those titles should give you a hint as to why the USDA wanted to harness the Red — and it had little to do with protecting Fargo-Moorhead. It was all about finding ways to allow farmers to drain their land more efficiently — channeling more water toward the river as fast as possible — while keeping the Red in its banks so they could continue to farm.

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A century later, one of those goals has been accomplished. Farmers get water off their land and funnel it toward the river in record time. The Red's capacity to take on that extra water, however, hasn't changed. And so we get nine of the top 15 crests of all time in the last 22 years.

The document is fascinating as haggling continues over the Fargo-Moorhead diversion, a $2.75 billion proposal that calls for a 30-mile channel to move water around the metro area in periods of high flow. The same issues, the same questions, the same belief that nature can be harnessed by humans for human benefit, were on display a century ago. Or more.

"That a comprehensive drainage program is essential for the proper development of agriculture in the valley of the Red River was recognized soon after farming began to be extensively practiced in that valley, about 1870," is the first sentence of the report.


After taking four years to investigate possible ways of reducing Red River flood impacts — including building levees the length of the river (impractical) and a large permanent reservoir on the Red (impossible because of the flat terrain) — the study suggested a multi-pronged approach that included a diversion.

But the diversion wasn't targeted for the Red. It was a 7-mile-long "wide, comparatively shallow floodway with a capacity of 2,250 second-feet" connecting North Dakota's Wild Rice River to the Sheyenne River to divert water from the Wild Rice during floods. The engineers figured the stretch of the Red from the outlets of the Wild Rice (south of Fargo) and the Sheyenne (north of Fargo) was too restricted for good flow and diverting water around Fargo would reduce flooding.

"There are numerous places in the watershed where stream diversion in one form or another can be advantageously employed," the report says. "Of such cases there is but one, that of the Dakota Wild Rice River, where this method can be employed for directly effecting an improvement of flow conditions in the channel of the Red River."

The report estimated such a diversion would lower the Red River 5 feet during floods.

Remember, the sainted former mayor of Fargo, Dennis Walaker, always said the Wild Rice was the thorn in his city's side. The engineers in 1922 agreed.

The cover page of the 1922 USDA report on Red River flooding.
The cover page of the 1922 USDA report on Red River flooding.U.S. Department of Agriculture

The 89-page report (plus maps and charts) seemed obsessed with removing obstructions in the flood plains of rivers and so it recommended "channel improvement in the Red River." This meant clearing everything up to 200 feet on either side of the river from Wahpeton, N.D. to the Canadian border.

That's a distance, according to the report, of 394 miles.

"... the channel be cleared of all trees, brush, deadfall debris, and structures of all kinds, except bridges, which seriously interfere with the free flow of water," the report stated. "If possible, the entire high-water channel should be cleared. The channel, once having been cleared, should be maintained permanently in good condition. This can best be done by pasturing the channel, or using it for hay land."

Straightening the channel for the entire length of the Red was also explored, but deemed impractical and too expensive. Apparently far more impractical and expensive than removing millions of trees and stumps for almost 400 miles on both sides of the winding river.

But if you think the engineers of the early 1900s were prehistoric with their suggestions, know this: They also recommended building a dam at Lake Traverse, along the Minnesota-South Dakota border, which was then uncontrolled. The Reservation Dam and the White Rock Dam today both regulate the Bois de Sioux River, which merges with the Otter Tail to form the Red at Wahpeton-Breckenridge.

The USDA study was seen at the time as the final solution to controlling the Red. It came 25 years after the record flood of 1897, when the river crested at 39.1 feet and caused an estimated $7 million in damage and loss ($106 million in today's dollars).

Estimated cost of the Lake Traverse dam and related work in 1922: $1.4 million ($21 million today).

Estimated cost of the Wild Rice River diversion and related work: $450,000 ($6.8 million today).

Estimated cost of clearing the Red River channel and related work: $4 million ($60.5 million today).

There's no word if former Gov. Ed Schafer believes that was too expensive.

"Various plans for obtaining relief from floods and poor drainage conditions have been studied and much time and money have been expended on them," the report said. " Some of the projects have led to considerable legal contention."

When it comes to the Red River, the more things change the more they stay the same.