Advertise in Print | Subscriptions
Published March 16, 2010, 11:16 AM

Farm Bureau group studies Red River Valley water

KINDRED, N.D. — Craig Hertsgaard says the wet conditions and flooding in the Red River Valley often are discussed, but seldom from the viewpoint of the region’s largest industry — farming.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

KINDRED, N.D. — Craig Hertsgaard says the wet conditions and flooding in the Red River Valley often are discussed, but seldom from the viewpoint of the region’s largest industry — farming.

“After last spring’s flood, the Cass County (N.D.) Farm Bureau were concerned about the enormity of water problems — what’s happening around Fargo-Moorhead, yes, but also the entire Red River Valley in general,” Hertsgaard says. “We invited all the counties along the Red River to meet with us and talk about the issue.”

So the Farm Bureau Red River Task Force was formed.

fficials from 16 counties were invited including the Devils Lake and Sheyenne River counties. In the end, the group got participation from county Farm Bureau presidents in Pembina, Grand Forks, Traill, Cass and Richland counties of North Dakota — “basically all of the areas that are affected by the excessive rainfall we’ve been getting for the past 20 years,” Hertsgaard says.

Brian Kramer, one of the Farm Bureau’s lobbyists in Bismarck, N.D., is the staffer assigned to the group. State Farm Bureau President Eric Aasmundstad, Devils Lake, attends some of the meetings. The group has met a half-dozen times, in Hillsboro, N.D., and Fargo, N.D.

Shortly after the group started meeting, it was put into action when North Dakota State Water Commission stopped drainage projects in eastern North Dakota in the wake of concerns raised by some cities along the Red River about farm drainage.

The task force got involved.

“We went to the Water Commission and asked them if they realized that not everyone agrees that agricultural drainage leads to downstream flooding,” Hertsgaard says. “There were a lot of people who felt strongly that drainage that’s been done to this state is not a major factor in flooding along the river — water resource boards and districts.”

Hey, wait a minute!

The Water Commission put the drainage projects in the Red River Valley low on its funding priority list, which was an effective moratorium. Farmers up and down the valley of these projects were stopped until the state Water Commission reverted to its earlier priorities late in the summer.

The Farm Bureau task force wasn’t involved in specific projects, but was involved in the idea that the state Water Commission shouldn’t change the traditional funding patterns without some “extensive research into whether they were doing.”

Job No. 1 is making sure the problem is described to the public accurately.

Agriculture needs science to tell people that farmers are not responsible for the wet phase.

“Speculation sells newspapers and talk shows, but we need facts” Hertsgaard says.

Agriculture needs to be successful with this in the same way it’s been successful in pesticide safety, safety of current seed products and economic issues, Hertsgaard says.

“We need to get good scientific evidence to back up what we’re doing,” he says.

Hertsgaard hauls out charts that show precipitation trends in Fargo, the county seat for Cass County.

Records show a period of high precipitation in the late 1800s, followed by a low period in the 1930s. He notes that the flood in 1897 was at 42 feet in Fargo, when there were no significant roads, except railroads.

Wetter for 80 years

The last 80 years have seen an increase in rainfall, and especially in the past 20 years, since the drought in 1990 ended.

“The effect of that is cumulative,” he says. “As the ground is more saturated, we’ve noticed that our (time) windows for planting are smaller. The windows for harvest are much, much smaller. And that carries over into spring because the soils are saturated in the fall.”

The problem of excessive moisture and flooding is a problem all Red River Valley residents share, but Hertsgaard makes this point: “The flooding is caused by the rainfall. That’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers tells us, what the local civil engineers and the water districts are telling us. It’s a one-to-one correlation. The correlation is not between farm drainage and flooding.”

Hertsgaard says field surface drainage in the valley often is 6 inches or less.

“It’s like taking a tabletop, taking a razor blade and making scratches in it,” he says. “Pour some water on it, and the scratches don’t hold anything back? The Red River Valley is like that — a lake bottom.”

While this shallow surface drainage has little effect on spring flooding, it can have a big benefit.

“The most serious floods for farmers are summer floods, when crops are growing. If the crop is standing in water for two or three days, a lot of crops can’t take that,” he says.

Red River Basin Commission is in the process of putting a study together on drainage. They’re just in Hertsgaard says the group has met with water resource district officials, including state Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo. Fischer is the basin coordinator for the Red River Joint Water Resource District and sits on the Cass County Joint Water Resource District, the Southeast Cass Water Resource District, as well as the North Dakota Water Coalition.

They’ve also met with Aaron Snyder, project manager and planner for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to inform him of the ag impacts of a proposed diversion project, wherever it’s built — access back and forth across a diversion, how a land along a diversion would be used and possible uses for the land on the diversion itself.

Because it may not be used for a general summer flood, there is some possibility it could be used for direct draining from adjacent farmland.

“If it’s a prolonged period of high water, how do you protect farmsteads and roads?”

Diversion’s impacts

A diversion around Fargo-Moorhead likely would not be activated in a summer flood at all because those floods aren’t of the magnitude of an early spring flood and often are the result of thunderstorm systems that are only 10 to 15 miles wide.

In Hertsgaard’s township, water wants to run north and east. Sections fill up until they run over the roads and into the next section. For springtime events, the culverts are mostly frozen shut.

“Once it runs over the roads, you’ve lost control of the water,” he says. “It can slowly erode the road — as much as 4 to 6 inches, easily in one event.”

Mathematically, the amount of water going over a 100-yard span at 2 inches deep will carry 16 times what a 24-inch culvert will take. If it wears off 4 inches, the capacity of the over-road water is 32 times the culvert capacity.

“Of course, flow — and pressure make a difference — but point is, you’re better off protecting the roads and trying to relieve sections through responsible drainage than you are by letting the roads wash out,” he says.

This is reflected in the number of acres of sugar beets left in the field, the soybeans harvested in December and the corn left over-wintering in the fields.

Hertsgaard lives with the truth of an old-timer’s advice, from when he was a younger fellow: “I’ll never forget it as long as I live. He said, ‘If you live around here, drought’ll scare you and a flood’ll kill you.’”

Water torture

Hertsgaard knows the truth of that.

He’s a shareholder of American Crystal Sugar Co. and raises beets for both Crystal and Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, N.D.

His farm was one of dozens that left half of his Minn-Dak Farmers beets in the field in 2008 when 30 percent of Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative ground was abandoned. In 2009, he got the beets harvested, but left 600 acres of corn.

“Exciting stuff, isn’t it?” he says. “You can certainly harvest in July, but we can’t plant anything after that.”

The question is will farmers — with their relatively small population base — have a voice in the policies that are coming down the pipe.

“What is agriculture doing in response to this?” Hertsgaard says. “We see cities in the valley, and drain boards responding. We farmers have to figure out how agriculture wants to respond.”

The task force committee is working with the Risk Management Agency to establish the size of crop losses that have been the result of flooding or heavy rains. The group also is working to help identify areas where retention can work — places such as the “dry dam” on the Maple River.

“I think, in terms of an organization, Farm Bureau would be very hesitant to recommend we’d get involved with a federal flood district,” Hertsgaard says. “In terms of cooperation, I think we can do more on a state-to-state basis than to have someone else coming and saying what’s best for us. We’d rather choose it ourselves.”

Any policy recommendation from his committee will be simply that — a recommendation, to the state Farm Bureau, which would move policy forward.

“I think what worries me most is a loss of local control,” he says. “That’s always the largest issue if you’re a farmer. Your livelihood depends on so many different things. You’d like to work it out with people you know and know you, rather than have decisions made a long way away.”