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Farmers angry over continued flooding
By Dan Gunderson
Minnesota Public Radio
June 12, 2002

Farmers in northwest Minnesota are checking their flood damaged fields and adding up the cost. Some say they've lost crops to flooding nine of the last ten years. They argue there is a way to stop these disasters.

Herman Lee eases his truck around a barricade on highway 9 a few miles south of Ada.

About a mile down the road a huge pile of uprooted trees is jammed against a bridge over the south branch of the Wild Rice River. The bridge has partially collapsed.

Herman Lee owns land on both sides of the bridge. He's farmed here for the last 50 years. The sight of mud encrusted plants and the smell of rotting vegetation is all too familiar.

"Down there where all the water is down there in front of those trees. Had a beautiful wheat field down there," says Lee.

"It's 100 percent wiped out. You just get sick in your tummy looking at it."

Crop insurance barely covers the cost of planting. It's unclear what federal assistance farmers may get because Congress did not include a disaster provision in the recently passed farm bill.

Herman says he's lost count of how many floods he's seen wash over his fields in 50 years. Three of the last five crops have been wiped out.

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Jim Stordahl says what most people see is another farm disaster. But he says the problem is much bigger. Floodwater destroys roads and bridges and crops. But huge uprooted trees jammed against bridges are a sign of massive soil erosion. This flood flushed tons of soil and fertilizer into rivers.

"It's really hard to put a price tag on the total cost when you see something like this," says Stordahl. "Not only is there a financial loss but you can see it in the eye of the farmers. There's a tremendous emotional strain with the farmers. Especially when this happens year after year."

The question farmers are asking is why flooding happens so often.

There's a simple answer. A century of ditch digging has created an efficient system for getting water quickly off of farm fields. But heavy rain rushes down from higher land east of the flat Red River Valley. Then it spreads out like a glass of water dumped on the floor as it makes it's way to the Red River.

Farmers say the solution is to build dams to hold back water at higher elevations and then release it slowly. That would help not only farmers, they say, but downstream cities like Ada and Grand Forks as well. But dam projects have been on hold for years because of environmental issues.

Mention the Department of Natural Resources or environmental concerns around here and you're likely to get an earful. Herman Lee says farmers are less important than bugs. He knows exactly what message he wants to pass along.

"I'd tell em to go back to Minneapolis and count butterflies," says Lee. "They've got things turned around."

Most farmers here share that opinion.

Minnesota 7th District U-S Congressman Collin Peterson knows just what his constituents want to hear.

"Our friends in the environmental community in the Twin Cities and the D-N-R have opposed us and basically stopped us from doing anything. They think they know better how to handle things up there. So anything we've tried to do, they've stopped," says Peterson.

Peterson contends if the dams that have already been planned could be built, there would be fewer floods.

A moratorium on flood control dams has been in effect for several years. A handful of projects are now beginning to move ahead, but it will take many more to undo a century of ditch digging.

University of Minnesota Extension Educator Jim Stordahl says until people are willing to work together, solutions will be elusive.

"Of course everybody tends to look at their own situation and see potential solutions that fix their problem," says Stordahl. "But often fixing their problem may impact someone else up or down stream. So it's a complex issue and alot of different organizations and people need to be involved to come up with a solution that's beneficial to everyone."

As the flood damage is tallied across northwest Minnesota, the debate over solutions is likely to get more acrimonious.