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Dike Locations Divide Communities
By Hope Deutscher
March 5, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4

Late last week, the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks City councils officially endorsed a $300 million flood protection plan. The proposed dikes will snake along both sides of the Red River, and, if all goes as the Army Corps of Engineers plan, it will prevent the re-occurrence of flooding on the scale of 1997. Still, construction of new dikes will come at the cost of more people's homes and local history.

FOR THE PEOPLE OF GREATER GRAND FOLKS, the planning seemed to take forever. But the $300 million dike plan was put together in record time - in months, rather than the years it usually takes for such a huge project.

Voice: The alignments have moved somewhat closer to the river than originally shown....

When the final dike placements were released in January, reaction was mixed.

Voice: Oh, I have a house, I have a house... now I have to start working on it... putting the basement back.

Early plans put an earthen dike right through Grand Forks City Council Member Elliot Glassheim's living room. The final plans moved it a vital few feet into his backyard.

Across the river in East Grand Forks, Mitch Wavra wasn't quite as happy.

Wavra: ...Save my home....

Although Wavra laughs when he throws out the plea to anyone who's willing to listen, he says it's not funny his new home is on the wet side of the proposed dike in East Grand Forks.

His old house was one of dozens destroyed by the flood in the same low-lying neighborhood. That location is on the dry side.

Wavra says he picked the site for his new home because it was one of the few dry spots he saw while being evacuated by helicopter. He built the structure to withstand a 60-foot flood. Last year the river crested at 54 feet. Wavra says the 10-inch concrete basement walls surrounded by drainage tiles will protect him from future floods.

Wavra: When I built the house, I built it so I'm safe, not so the town is safe, so I'm safe. I don't plan on moving this house anywhere. I'm not going to stick it on some flat piece of ground inside the dike, lower ground. It would be like moving from a safe place to a less safe place. And that would be really stupid.

Wavra says he'll fight to keep his home exactly where it is.

Under the dike plan, more than 300 homes in the two cities, including some of the cities' oldest and most architecturally significant, will have to be moved or torn down to make way for the clay levees.

Some residents living in those homes were pushing for a diversion ditch. Almost everyone admits it's the safest option. Something along the lines of the huge 17-mile drainage channel protecting Winnipeg. But the $733 million price tag was not considered cost-effective by the two city councils, so they voted it down.

Grand Forks City Council member Beth Bouley is looking for other ways to save some of the historic homes by moving them elsewhere in the city.

Bouley: I don't know anybody who wants to ever see the river flow through their living room again; nobody wants to see that ever again, but it's so hard to see your neighbors have...and some of these beautiful historic homes that just can't be duplicated. I can feel for the people whose homes are being taken.

Grand Forks Engineer Ken Vien: ...But on the same token, having experienced the flooding and seen firsthand the city-wide devastation, I certainly don't want to see that happen again. So granted, these are tough times for those few, but I just have to know and think that this is the best for our community.

About eight million sandbags were used to hold back floodwaters in the Red River Valley last spring. Vien says last year's flood proved sandbags can fail. He says a permanent flood levee will offer much more security. Army Corps Project Manager Lisa Hedin says Congress will pay half the $300 million price tag for the approved clay levee system. The city of Grand Forks will have to pay $52 million, while East Grand Forks chips in about $23 million, an amount Mayor Lynn Stauss says the city can't pay alone. It will need more financial help from the state of Minnesota.

The Army Corps' Hedin says the flood levees are designed to be about two feet higher than last spring's flood level.

Hedin: That is very long-term protection - it's a high level of protection. The '97 event is an event that has a recurrence level of less than 200 years, or a probability of occurring any given year of 0.47%, so it's very small.

Once completed, the levees will have to be maintained and operated by the cities with the corps' help. Officials hope to begin construction by 1999. It will take about five years to complete.

Some people are concerned the Grand Forks plan is being done in something of a vacuum. They point out true flood control along the Red River will take a concerted effort involving communities both in the US and Canada.

In the meantime, East Grand Forks City Council President Punky Beauchamp says the old dike system will continue as the flood-protection backbone on both sides of the river.

Beauchamp: Our dike system did not crumble or fail as such. You know, we flooded from the inside in many respects. In time, there were some that were overcapped because we had to pull out, we had to evacuate. Our dikes were still in place and standing. I traveled on a boat the Monday after the evacuation, and you know, we drove around and saw dikes sticking out of the water.

It's a sight the people of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks hope they'll never see again, but it will remain a possibility until the new dikes are in place.

As the Red River crests this week above flood level, flooding is expected to be minimal, but once again, it will force people on the wet side to ponder whether to move their homes or lose them, almost a year after the great flood of '97.