Residents of the Red River Valley are all too familiar with flooding. It's a common routine. Flood waters threaten towns. Roads and bridges wash away. Homes and crops are destroyed. But there's a plan some say will help. It's coming from researchers at the Energy and Environmental Research Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
It's called the the Waffle Plan. The idea is to develop a system for temporary storage of floodwater in the Red River basin. Ed Steadman is Associate Director for Research at the Energy and Environmental Research Center. Steadman says that's already happening to some extent. But under the waffle plan, the drainage will be coordinated. Flood water will be diverted to some fields for storage. Special culverts will manage the water flow.
"By controlling the culverts and placing the culverts in specific locations you can retard the water flow," Steadman says. "In those areas (it's) like syrup in a waffle square. But in a coordinated fashion, (it will) allow it to drain back to the river."
According to Steadman, one advantage of the waffle plan is that much of it is already built. "We're talking about (an)existing grid structure of roads and ditches that we've already built for other reasons to slow down the progress of water to the river in times of peak flood," he says.
""By controlling the culverts and placing the culverts in specific locations you can retard the water flow. In those areas (it's) like syrup in a waffle square. But in a coordinated fashion, (it will) allow (the water) to drain back to the river.""
- Ed Steadman is Associate Director for Research at the Energy and Environmental Research Center
Steadman says research will show whether the waffle plan is feasible. They'll look at all existing data to produce models and maps of the basin. Steadman says the work is unique because it includes the entire Red River basin. The research will determine how much water the waffle will hold.
Gerald Groenewold is the director of the Energy and Environmental Research Center. He says the waffle is cheaper than building dikes but he admits the dikes will have to be augmented. "If we replicate the dikes, for example that we're building in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks throughout this basin, we estimate just to save the major towns, will cost about $2 billion," Groenewold says.
A new series of dikes for Grand Forks will cost $397 million. Groenwold estimates the waffle plan, which will cover the entire Red River basin, will cost $50 million. But he says, that figure does not include paying farmers for storing water on their land. Gronewold believes farmers will be willing to donate the use of their land. He says farmers who store water can use it for irrigation.
The waffle plan has its critics. Robert Thompson farms near Ayr, in eastern North Dakota. Thompson has served on state and local water boards for more than 20 years. He's currently a member of the state water commission. He believes the waffle plan has some practical flaws. For instance, he wonders how a series of mechanical culverts can control the flood water.
"They're going to look at 15,000 sections, you're looking at 45,000 culverts. Who is going to open and shut them culverts? It physically can't be done," Thompson says.
He says it makes more sense to build dams on the headwaters on the Red River's tributaries. Thompson says, "Build retention structures on land that's of a lot less value and put water on it to a greater depth and release the water at a slow rate." Thompson thinks that will help relieve flooding along the the Maple River and the Wild Rice Rivers in Minnesota and North Dakota.
Thompson says when a dam was built on his property he was unhappy about the loss of the land. But through the years he's realized the dam was a good investment. He says the land is more valuable now because it helps reduce downstream flooding. Research on the waffle plan will continue for the next two years.