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Published July 14, 2014, 09:18 AM

Flood control creates tough times for farmers, ranchers

Ken Livedalen looks over what once was a broad meadow near the Souris River. For decades the ground produced a bountiful crop of nutritious grass that he baled and fed to his cattle.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

TOWNER, N.D. — Ken Livedalen looks over what once was a broad meadow near the Souris River. For decades the ground produced a bountiful crop of nutritious grass that he baled and fed to his cattle.

“People used to come here to see all the hay bales,” he says.

Today, after repeated flooding, most of the high-quality grass is gone, lost to weeds and standing water. The meadow-turned-marsh hasn’t been hayed in five years, and Livedalen has sold his cattle and quit ranching.

Livedalen turns away from the soggy, weedy ground and says, “People say, ‘Oh, it’s only grass you’ve lost.’ But grass is our crop. Without it, we’re in trouble.”

He pauses and says, “People don’t care what’s happening. They don’t think we matter.”

Most ranchers around Towner — a farm town of 500 and the self-proclaimed “cattle capital of North Dakota” — are struggling after years of flooding. Time after time, year after year, overflowing Souris River water has ravaged hay crops, destroyed fences and forced ranchers to sell some or all of their cattle. This year alone, reduced cattle numbers will cost ranchers in McHenry County, in which Towner is located, an estimated $5 million in sales — a big blow in this rural county of 5,400.

Their struggles reflect a convoluted puzzle of international agreements, a multi-year wet cycle and claims of rural-versus-urban politics.

Some Towner ranchers are particularly upset by what they perceive as special treatment for Minot, North Dakota’s fourth-largest city, 50 miles to the west. The ranchers say they’re being sacrificed to protect Minot, also threatened by Souris River flooding.

U.S. and Canadian officials responsible for managing the Souris deny favoritism. They say there are no easy answers or simple solutions.

“It’s a complex problem. It’s a complex piece of river,” says Tim Fay, a North Dakota State Water Commission staff member, engineer and manager of Souris River Flood Control.

“There are risks that those guys face (by operating along the river.),” he says. “But I can’t say that management of the project hasn’t added to that risk. We’ve got to do better with that.”

One thing is certain:

Frustrated ranchers in the Towner area think they’re ignored and overlooked.

“Minot gets the attention. We feel we’re the forgotten ones in all this,” says Raquel Dugan-Dibble, McHenry County extension agent, who has both personal and professional ties to the area. She stresses that state officials are doing all they can to help.

Some ranchers say they’ll lose their livelihood and a treasured way of life until solutions are found soon.

“I’m fighting to save my ranch,” says Lynn Kongslie, a Towner cattle producer. “And I don’t know how much longer I can keep going.”

He and other hard-pressed ranchers took another blow in late June, when heavy rains in the Souris River Basin led to new flooding. Ranchers along the river had hoped to harvest a modest hay crop this summer, but the most recent flood wrecked those hopes.

“It’s tough. This just keeps coming,” says Justin Kongslie, Lynn’s brother, and a former rancher.

Justin, now Towner location manager of the Envision farm supply cooperative, says previous flooding contributed to his decision to quit ranching.

Two names, one river

Making sense of what’s happening to Towner ranchers begins with understanding the Souris River. That’s the name used by Canadians and U.S. water management officials. Many Americans, including most Towner ranchers, call it the Mouse.

Whatever the name, the river originates in the Yellow Grass Marshes north of Weyburn, Saskatchewan. It flows southeast, down through Minot, before turning north back into Canada, flowing through Towner on the way.

The 435-mile-long river drains about 23,600 square miles. Most of the water it carries comes from snow melt and spring rains, and too much of either leads to flooding, sometimes severe. Flooding has been common recently. Much of the Souris River Watershed began a wet cycle in the early 1990s that, despite a few dry stretches, has become particularly troublesome in the past five years.

Several dams on the river store water to guard against shortages in dry years and to protect against flooding in wet ones.

Of most importance to Towner ranchers are the Alameda Dam near Alameda and Oxbow in Saskatchewan, the Rafferty Dam near Estevan, Saskatchewan, and, downstream, the Lake Darling Dam in the U.S., 20 miles northwest of Minot.

Water released from the Canadian dams flows down to Lake Darling, where it’s released again. The timing of those releases is controversial.

Some Towner ranchers say water is released too late in the growing season, flooding their fields and ruining hay crops. They want the water to be released much earlier, in the spring, before grass begins growing.

“We could handle it (flooding) in the spring. But it gets released too late,” says Roger Livedalen, Ken’s brother, who had to sell some of his own cows because of reduced hay supplies.

Water management officials say there are restrictions on when they can release water.

Complicated agreement

The Alameda and Rafferty dams are the linchpins of the Alameda-Rafferty Project, which provides flood protection in Saskatchewan and North Dakota and water supplies in Saskatchewan. The dams were designed in the 1980s and went into operation in the 1990s.

The project is managed under a 1989 U.S.-Canadian agreement. Details are complicated, but the process works like this:

Forecasters in both countries monitor weather and climate trends. If the experts say there’s a chance of flooding, the project goes into flood control mode and control of Lake Darling passes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Though the Corps is in charge, North Dakota and Saskatchewan officials are actively involved, too.

The 1989 agreement limits what can be done, however.

“We have target flows that we can’t exceed,” says Russell Boals, Canadian co-chairman of the International Souris River Board, which manages water issues between Canada and the U.S.

Those restrictions, aimed at protecting Minot, lengthen the time required to move water through the system and drag out releases later into the growing season, Boals says.

But the real problem is the huge amount of water in the Souris, not the timing of the releases, he says.

“We’ve been in a wet cycle and there’s a lot of water to move through the system,” Boals says.

Flooding is worsened by the recent pattern of heavy late-spring and early summer rains, which is unusual in the Souris River Basin, he says.

He says flooding will remain a problem as long as that continues.

Some Towner ranchers, citing decades of personal experience along the river, think differently. They insist that releasing water earlier would solve, or at least moderate, many of their problems.

Hay haven

Making sense of what’s happening to Towner ranchers also requires understanding why hay and cattle are so important here.

The Souris, in the Towner area, is flanked by flat, wide expanses of fertile soil. In the spring, water often spills over its short banks and covers the adjacent meadows.

The spring floods make the land too wet for planting wheat or other crops. But the Souris water replenishes the soil, bolstering grass, and generally dries out in time for the ground to be hayed.

Land farther from the river is a bit higher than the meadows and well-suited for pasture, says John Dhuyvetter, the North Dakota State University Extension Service’s Minot-based area specialist in livestock systems.

The combination of low-lying hay meadows and higher-ground pastures allowed Towner ranchers “to pretty much assure themselves of a good feed source. That’s a critical thing, historically, in sustainable ranching,” Dhuyvetter says.

Because they’re on higher ground, pastures generally have avoided major flood damage. But floods have come so often, and so late, that much of the existing high-quality grass in the meadows has died.

Nature responds to drown-out with a cycle that begins with weeds reclaiming bare soil. Slowly, over many years,

the original high-quality grass wins back the ground.

But the cycle has been delayed by repeated flooding, Dhuyvetter says. Soggy hay fields infested with weeds are staying that way, year after year. Even when fields are dry enough for haying, the poor-quality hay can lead to smaller calves and more unbred cows — serious concerns for cattle producers who sell a new batch of calves every year.

To compensate, ranchers need to buy feed supplements or expensive good-quality hay from outside the Towner area.

James Haman understands the problem all too well.

The semi-retired Towner rancher stands on the edge of a hay field near the Souris. Most of the field is covered with green, growing plants.

“Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? But just wait,” Haman tells visitors.

He walks into the field, bends down, and runs his hand through the ankle-high plants. “See? A weed. And here, another weed. And this — well, I don’t know exactly what it is, but it’s a weed, too,” he says,

Haman shakes his head and says, “This used to make real good hay. But what’s here now is mostly weeds.”

Minot’s role

Making sense of what’s happening to Towner ranchers also requires understanding a few things about Minot.

The Souris runs roughly through the center of the city, dividing it in two, north and south. In June 2011, the river, fed by heavy rains upstream and accelerating dam releases, soared nearly 4 feet in less than a day and overwhelmed the city’s levees. More than a quarter of Minot’s population, about 40,000 at the time, had to evacuate.

Since then, Minot has grown rapidly, in large part because of the city’s proximity to western North Dakota’s booming oil patch. Minot’s growth includes a spate of hotel construction, which has boosted the number of hotel rooms in the state from about 2,100 in late 2011 to about 3,100 in late 2013.

Of the state’s 725,000 residents, about 46,000, or six in 100, now live in Minot.

Three years after 2011 flooding, flood protection remains a priority for city residents and leaders.

Balancing needs

Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher, praised “the greatest happiness for the greatest number.”

Spock, of Star Trek fame, insisted “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Some Towner ranchers say that mindset is causing the bulk of their problems.

“The 50,000 voters in Minot (a reference to the city’s population) are more important to politicians than the 600 voters here,” says Mark Anderson, a Towner rancher.

Lynn Kongslie says one state official told him privately that protecting Minot, at the expense of Towner ranchers, is “for the better good.”

Dan Jonasson, Minot’s director of public works, denies Minot is getting special treatment. He says management of Souris River flooding reflects a basinwide approach, not what’s best for his city. The Souris River channel isn’t deep or defined in the Towner area, which contributes to flooding there, he says.

Critics also complain that farmers and ranchers are being hurt unfairly by flood control efforts in Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota’s largest and third-largest cities, he says.

“They say we’re big, bad Minot, because we’re the largest city in the area. But the same thing gets said about other cities,” Jonasson says.

U.S. and Canadian water management officials say they’ve met with the Towner ranchers and understand their concerns.

“We’re trying very hard to meet their needs,” Fay says. “I hope we can move into a phase where we can start helping them deal with those problems.

“This is not a protect-Minot-at-all-costs project,” he says.

Boals, the Canadian water management official, also says current practices seek to benefit the entire basin.

Canada and the U.S. often disagree on how to manage water over their common border.

Some Towner ranchers blame Canada, in part, for their problems.

Fay says officials in both countries want to do the right thing in managing the Souris River. He also says having two countries involved adds “another layer” in flood-control efforts.

Boals says flood-control efforts have remained professional, even though emotions sometimes run high.

Ag commissioner

Doug Goehring, North Dakota agriculture commissioner, says he’s visited the Towner area a number of times.

Protecting the needs of both Minot and ranchers is essential. Because agriculture is in the minority, however, its needs can be overlooked, he says.

Goehring says he and his office are doing everything possible to help Towner ranchers. But those efforts generally involve addressing the aftermath of flooding — for instance, government programs that pay a share of the cost of replacing damaged property, he says.

There’s not much the ag commissioner’s office can do to solve the underlying problem, he says.

Goehring, a Republican, is up for reelection this fall. His Democratic opponent is Ryan Taylor, a Towner rancher.

Taylor says his ranch isn’t particularly close to the Souris and has suffered less damage than operations along it.

Like Goehring, Taylor stresses the need to protect Minot while also doing what’s right for Towner ranchers.

Better communication with Canada is needed, Taylor says.

Irrigation project

Some Towner hayland hurt by flooding is in the Eaton Irrigation Project. The 6,700-acre project, 13 miles long and a few miles wide, dates to the 1930s, when some ranchers struggled to get enough hay because of drought. Today, 43 landowners are part of the project, which irrigates the 6,700 acres with Souris River water in the spring.

But the river has flooded so often, and so late in the growing season, that landowners aren’t getting a reliable supply of hay.

Towner rancher Jason Zahn, president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, is one of the 43 landowners in the project.

“It’s not easy making land payments or paying rent on land you’re not able to use,” he says.

Zahn is less outspoken about flooding and its causes than some Towner ranchers. But he says better communication with Canada is needed. He also points to new construction in Minot, which he says accelerates runoff and contributes to flooding.

Cliff Hanretty, a Towner rancher and president of the Eaton Irrigation Project, says the long wet cycle has hurt.

“There’s just been so much rain. And the water has to go through the system,” he says.

Frustration

Upper Midwest ranchers are accustomed to coping with adverse weather. But stress from repeated flooding is wearing on Towner cattle producers.

Lynn Kongslie, perhaps the most outspoken Towner rancher, stands next to his pickup on a gravel road near his ranch. His son, Andrew, also a rancher, and Mark Anderson, who ranches nearby, are with him.

Lynn Kongslie talks about the meetings he’s attended and the water management officials he’s talked to.

He stops for a moment, overcome with emotion. Then he clenches his fists, raises them above the pickup and says, “Nothing does any good. I could pound this pickup.”

One set of his great-grandparents homesteaded in the area in 1877, another set in 1888.

Kongslie, 60, talks about the challenges that his ancestors faced and overcame. He talks about his own challenges and how he hasn’t given up hope of overcoming them.

“Ranchers improvise. That’s what I’ve done,” he says.

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