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News & Features
An Alternative for Flood Control
By Mary Losure
May 17, 1999
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The Red River between Minnesota and North Dakota flows north into Canada through what was once a vast wetland. For generations, farmers in the valley built dams and straightened rivers to protect their land from flooding. Now, such flood control projects are languishing, unable to get permits or funding. Environmental groups and government agencies are trying to convince farmers to try new, more environmentally friendly tactics in their decades-long battle against water.

IN ITS CONSTRUCTION HEYDAY in the ‘40's, ‘50's and ‘60's, the Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies built hundreds of dams on Minnesota tributaries of the Red River. In later years, local farmers built dozens more. But that era is over now. In 1993 the corps suspended the permits for 33 new dams on the Minnesota side of valley, citing concern over possible environmental problems. Projects like the Winger dam were what triggered the moratorium.
Wilkins: Now this would have backed the water up six miles, and I can take you up we'll go up to the other end.
Dan Wilkins stands on the highway at the site of the dam, which was planned for the Sand Hill River near the small town of Winger. It would have flooded a valley in otherwise level farmland, creating a reservoir to hold storm water and protect downstream farmland from flooding. Local supporters said it would have recreational benefits as well - motorboating and lakeshore cabins. Dan Wilkens, a farmer who directs the local board that oversees flood control projects, says everyone in the area jumped at the prospect.
Wilkins: Like I said, I think it was the local lions club went out and in no time had like, 23 out of the 26 landowners signed up. It was really…I thought it was kind of neat.
In an earlier era, the town of Winger would likely have gotten its dam - but by today's federal and state environmental standards, it was a non starter. It would have drowned more than 700 acres of wetlands. The reservoir would have been polluted with sediment, farm chemicals and algae. Army Corps of Engineers studies showed despite its $5 million price tag, the dam would have provided only local flood-control benefits, not protection for downstream cities.

The benefits of the other 32 dam projects whose permits were suspended by the Corps are equally doubtful. According to the Corps own studies, all the projects together would have lowered the peak flood stage on the Red River by a total of less than one inch.

In the minds of people like Luther Aadland, a research scientist with the Minnesota department of Natural Resources at Fergus Falls, it was time to try something new; flood control, he says, would benefit, not damage, the environment.

Aadland: One of the approaches we've been advocating is restoring rivers as a flood damage reduction strategy.
The Red River Valley has thousands of miles of rivers that are candidates for restoration. They've been dug out and straightened in the name of flood control. A section of the Ottertail River on the south end of the Valley not far from Aadland's office is a typical example. In stark contrast to the curving, willow-lined stream above and below it, this stretch of the river is a straight, treeless ditch. The water is muddy and there are few fish.
Aadland: It really is sickening for a stream. In terms of species, for a tributary, this is probably the most diverse rivers in the red river basin, by far. But you won't find that diversity in stretches like this.
Aadland says restoring the stream's natural curves would slow it down and allow it to hold water on the land longer, so water from storms wouldn't rush straight through and flood people downstream. He and others are also advocating restoring drained wetlands, so they too can hold water back on the land.

But for many, such "green" methods of flood control will be a tough sell. Don Oogaard is a 72-year-old retired farmer who heads the Red River Watershed Management Board, which oversees all the flood control projects on the Minnesota side of the Red River valley. Oogaard has been winning dams for farmers for half a century. He began his lifelong crusade after he saw his father's crops drowned out, for seven years in a row.

Oogaard: I saw my father destroyed by excess water. His spirit was destroyed, he had no desire to continue farming because of that.
In his home office in the tiny farm town of Ada, Oogard shows slides of aerial photos taken during flood years. They show the Red River Valley awash in water--crops drowned, roads swept away, the roofs of barns and houses protruding above what looks like a vast lake. Then he shows a section of the valley now protected by conventional means of flood control.
Oogaard: This area was flooded 35 times in 30 years prior to 1979. In 1979 we put a series of large channels in the area, and two dams upstream, and they've only had two floods since, and that's the spring of ‘96 and ‘97, otherwise no summer floods, and [before] they had continual [flooding]. It was the worst flooded area in the red river basin, with the highest damages.
Oogard says alternatives to dams and channeling are expensive and unproven and will only work in a few geographic areas. Even though dams projects are stalled for now, he believes traditional methods offer the ultimate solution to flooding in the valley.

Cheryl Miller of Minnesota's National Audobon Society disagrees. She says dams and channels face growing resistance not only from environmental groups, but from downstream communities who have seen their own flooding problems worsen.

Miller: I think that the floods here in the Midwest in the last ten years have convinced more people that we've got a real problem here, that the way we're managing these watersheds is not working. That we might have been able to do this for awhile, but cumulatively all of the different decisions that we've made over time, particularly in a wet cycle like we've been having, the system is broken.
After the disastrous Red River floods of 1997, the state of Minnesota called in mediators to break the stalemate between dam opponents and supporters. Late last year, all sides of the flood control dispute signed a non-binding agreement, saying new projects must show net benefits for the environment.

The first pilot projects are on the drawing boards, but whether they are built will depend on whether local farmers in each place the projects are proposed are willing to accept them.

Lowell Dyrud's family has farmed in the Red River Valley since 1886. He supports new methods of flood control, but understands how hard it is for many of his neighbors.

Dyrud: When you think about it, for over 100 years there's been the feeling of ‘cut your ditches, gouge the land, and flood downstream and once the water is out of my land, it really doesn't matter what happens below it.' That is changing it I think. This is a new era and I think people are more receptive now than they have been in the past, but it is a hard mindset to change.
In Dyruds area near Fergus Falls, farmers face a stark choice between the flood control methods of the past, and what environmentalists hope will be those of the future. Some farmers along the Thief River want to make a stretch of it into a drainage ditch - to clean out all the trees and stream-side vegetation and create straight pipe to take water off their land. Environmental groups and the state of Minnesota are asking the farmers to consider alternatives, such as storing excess water in restored wetlands upstream. So far, the jury is still out, but it's the kind of decision that will likely be repeated in sites across the valley and shape the land for years to come.