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COVER STORY: Water works?: How urban flood fixes would affect rural areas

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Federalize water governance in the Red River Valley? Create a RRV authority? In most times, those ideas would sound unthinkable, but with Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., threatened by a second 100-year flood in a dozen years,...

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Federalize water governance in the Red River Valley? Create a RRV authority?

In most times, those ideas would sound unthinkable, but with Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., threatened by a second 100-year flood in a dozen years, the drumbeat has grown louder.

Local residents and officials in rural areas say that any of these changes should be considered carefully, so as not to throw the "baby" of local water governance out with the flood water.

"I'd hate to lose the local control of water vs. a larger governing body," says Jim Engel, 45. Engle is a fourth-generation farmer three miles east of Hillsboro, N.D. "I think it's important that local decisions remain local."

Engel's family has been farming in the area since 1886. He has a family operation and raises corn, wheat and soybeans with the help of his father, Ralph, who retired in 1996. They have American Crystal Sugar Co. beet stock, but haven't actually raised the beets since 1994, when the area started getting wet.

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During the height of the first crest of the 2009 Red River flood, Engel went to Fargo to help build a sandbag dike at the home of his sister, Cheryl, in the Stonebridge area, south of 32nd Avenue. Mostly, people seemed appreciative that he was there helping, even though he didn't live there.

Engel says he was concerned about comments he'd hear occasionally about the rural impact on this urban flooding.

"I was getting that this was the result of field drainage -- that farmers are impacting this, that that's what's causing this flood. I thought, 'No, this is weather-related.'"

Though his own family has had legal disputes about water governance, Engel thinks this kind of thinking could overshadow local governance toward more influence from bigger cites. That could come at the expense of agriculture.

Local, common ground?

On the North Dakota side of the river there are "legal drains" every one, two or three miles. North Dakota's water governance is set up in a county-based water boards system, compared with watershed systems in Minnesota.

Gary Peterson, office manager-technician for the Traill County Water Resource District, based in Hillsboro, says he's concerned that losing local control over drainage could come at a heavy cost.

"I think the farther you get from the local level, the harder it is to solve the problem. If a person has a small problem they might not listen to it on a federal level," Peterson says.

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"If you have local control, you can do more to help people without having to spend money. A good part of the water board's work is to bring people together, and try to find solutions to their problems where they don't have another avenue."

Traill County is one of the more "aggressive" water management districts, or counties, in the state, Peterson says. It isn't always controversy-free.

The Traill County board has a five-member water board, appointed by the Traill County Commission. It has jurisdiction over some 50 "assessment drains" -- 230 miles of ditches -- that take water toward the three major rivers in the county, the Goose, the Elm and the Red. The county is involved with "joint boards," where their activities involve surrounding counties of Cass, Steele and Grand Forks.

Some of the ditches date to the 1800s.

Some were built or significantly changed in the past year.

The longest of these ditch-drains in Traill County is nine miles long -- a recently reconstructed of the so-called Leirness Drain (also called Drain 54) , originally built in the mid-1950s.

The Leirness Drain is being reconstructed to a capacity larger than it was built for.

"A lot of these drains were built to handle an inch of rain in 24 hours. That's pretty small. We're upgrading so they can handle 3 inches in 24 hours -- something like that," Peterson says.

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The Leirness reconstruction project also involves replacing seven bridges with culverts, to control the water. The project was expensive, and not without controversy over its cost.

The Leirness reconstruction project will cost about $2.4 million. Farmers will pay about $900,000, extracted in the form of an annual special assessment against the land.

"You try to stretch it over 15 years by selling a bond," Peterson says.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay about $500,000. The North Dakota Department of Transportation and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway pay for culverts under their roads. County and township pay a cost-share on crossings over their roads.

Traill County's situation

Generally, the western part of the Traill County is along the ancient Lake Agassiz beach -- higher, with one section having a 20-foot drop from one corner to the other.

"The biggest 'dike' in the county is Interstate 29," Peterson says. "Once it gets there, we have to try to channel it and funnel it. We have to work with what I-29 gives us."

The flattest part of the county is the east.

Peterson, who farmed before working for the water board, was himself the chairman of the water board before coming into the position in 2001. He says farmers must petition to build a drain.

"They have to put a certain amount of money up to cover the cost of doing engineering and a feasibility study," he says.

Engineering determine whether the proposed drain has an adequate outlet to a river and whether it is economically advantageus. The county sends the proposed project to the state for review and for a proposed cost-share agreement. The state pays 35 percent of the "covered costs" in building a new drain.

Then there's a local vote. If more than 50 percent of the votes cast are in favor, then there is a period where landowners can protest their assessments. Finally, bids can be let and the project can get under way.

"In this day and age, participation for votingis usually very high because of the cost of the drain and the production costs of the farmers," Jason Siegert says.

Siegert, farms in Eldorado, Caledonia and Hillsboro townships, within the county.

"There's a threshold," Siegert says, referring to what farmers will accept. "Typically, a $10 assessment will pass."

Typically, the costs are passed through to a renter and often run from $5 to $12 an acre per year per acre. Some projects proposed at $25 per acre have not passed.

More accurate drainage

Farm drainage often is offered as a scapegoat for flooding problems.

Siegert says his father did surface drainage as long ago as the 1960s, and he's been using newer technology -- global positioning system and lasers -- since 1996.

Siegert isn't willing to say it contributes significantly to spring flooding like 1997 and 2009.

"We drain differently, but I'm not sure it's that all that fast," Siegert says. "Believe me, we are moving water slower to the river streams today because we don't have open bridges -- now we have culverts, sized by engineers, for a certain flow. We have controlled delivery to the rivers."

Peterson says one of the biggest misconceptions is the effect of tile, or subsurface drainage.

"Tile drainage doesn't affect spring flooding at all," he says. "The ground is frozen, so it's not flowing."

If anything, he says, it stretches drainage out for a longer period time.

Tile drainage runs $400 to $600 an acre, he says. It can be limited by the kind of soil, or the amount of slope in the land.

Further, this subsurface drainage is slow. It removes about a half-inch of standing moisture in a 24-hour period.

"You're not talking about a great amount," he says.

Peterson thinks the solution to reducing Red River flooding is a combination of things.

The so-called "waffle plan" would be a "small piece of the puzzle" in Traill County because the western part of the county has so much slope. It would cost money to raise some roads as "dikes," to keep water on the land. Even if it works, the source of funding hasn't been identified.

Dams are another challenge because the places to build them are "few and far between."

Peterson says one part of a solution will be to prevent contractors from building homes and other structures within flood plains. He hopes townships have clamped down on any building in the northeast corners of sections in Traill County, where water flows in that direction.

"I think it could get really out of hand if they federalized the thing," Siegert says. "I think there'd be a lot of midnight culvert plugging because you take the 'local' out of it.

"When we get into a flood like this spring, it has overtopped the capacity of all of these drains by a lot. The capacity that these drains deliver is a finite number. It's metered. When you get into a flood situation, the drain is over capacity. If that drain wasn't there, you'd still have water coming across country."

Drains aren't really designed for the spring flooding situations at all, Peterson says. Most farmers at this point don't care if their land water has water on it.

"It's frozen, it's not going to hurt them," Peterson adds.

The Traill County water board knew there would be flooding trouble back in February, when ice storms created plugged drains.

A week before flooding started in their county, Peterson and Siegert were among water board officials out trying to use trackhoes and other equipment to get ice and snow out of culverts, trying to get them drained into the Red and Goose rivers, to try to get rid of some water before the crests showed up.

But it wasn't to protect farm fields. It was to protect farm yards that are in trouble.

Peterson says there really is no way to build drains or ditches that would be big enough to solve major flood.

"Our biggest drain is for a 10-year frequency -- when you have a 3- to 4-inch rain in a 24-hour period of rainfall. Anything bigger than that wouldn't be economically feasible. It'd be so expensive to build that farmers wouldn't be able to afford it."

Not a silver bullet

Engel acknowledges that even with the local control, there still are long-standing disputes. The acknowledges that his family is at the center of a chronic legal dispute with a neighbor, Roger Anderson, who is a strong critic of how the system has been applied within Traill County.

Anderson has approached the local water board, township board and has gone to court against the Engel family and various entities.

Lawyer Tami Norgard with the Vogel law firm in Fargo, represents Engel in some of these actions, which still are pending. Norgard says she's involved in a dozen farmer-vs.-farmer drainage cases.

"Under North Dakota law, every landowner has to accept a 'reasonable' amount of water," Norgard says.

In the case of federal regionwide authority, or even North Dakota-specific changes, water governance could change drastically and probably with some controversy.

"If the Legislature chooses to create a Red River Valley Authority, they can create it and give it authority if they choose to give it, either through state statues or through administrative rules," Norgard says.

For farmers, the state could decide to put restrictions on subsurface drainage tiling, or abolish it completely.

Right or wrong, these things could happen, she says.

"Throw in the federal authority? How long will it take to decide who's going to get a seat at the table -- how the decision-making is going to run? If you're looking for problem solving for Fargo-Moorhead, you can't rely on a quick solution -- quick being 10 years," Norgard says.

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