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Eventually a drought will come

Last week's meeting in Fargo of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District Board revealed a potentially disastrous gap between city and federal officials regarding the city's population growth and future water needs. But even if the U.S. Bureau ...

Last week's meeting in Fargo of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District Board revealed a potentially disastrous gap between city and federal officials regarding the city's population growth and future water needs. But even if the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's lower population projections for Fargo are right, a water crisis still looms.

The Bureau is collaborating with 13 Garrison district counties in eastern North Dakota that comprise 42 percent of the state's population. In addition to Fargo, the Minnesota cities of Moorhead, East Grand Forks and Breckenridge are included in the study.

The disagreement centers on the Bureau's contention that Fargo will grow to 196,000 people by 2050, while the Fargo projection is for 243,000 at the high end. The gap of about 50,000 people affects assessments of water needs.

But even at low-end projections, only 32 percent of the city's water needs would be met in a 1930s-type drought. City officials understand that it is vital for the urban area -- dependent for most of its water on the Red River -- to plan now for additional water supplies.

And that means eventually bringing water from where most of it is -- the Missouri River -- to where supply will be insufficient -- the Red River Valley.

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And just a bit of historical perspective: The Bureau's projections for Fargo's growth have been routinely wrong. The Bureau said Fargo would grow to 87,600 people by 2000. The city actually grew to 90,341. The Bureau said the rate of growth would be 1.7 percent during the last decade; it was 2.1 percent and is expected to be greater in the next 10 years.

The drought of the 1930s is within the memories of many Valley residents. The Red River nearly dried up. Less severe droughts since then lowered water flow in the Red to near-crisis levels. For the most part, water shortages were either avoided or managed because the cities dependent on the Red for water were smaller than they are today. Water use was far lower than it is today.

The cities' growth has required ever-escalating water needs. High-capacity, state-of-the-art water treament plants have come on line.

But reliable supply remains the number one concern among most city officials along the Red. Vast reaches to the south and west of the Valley are in the second or third year of drought. If the drought spreads north and east, the Red and its tributaries could be affected. Maybe the current dry spell will turn wet. But eventually a drought will come. That's the nature of the Northern Plains.

At this point, Fargo and other cities that depend on the Red have no significant alternative water sources. And the Bureau of Reclamation doesn't appear to be taking the situation seriously enough.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper's Editorial Board

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