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Proposed Red River flood mitigation project awarded federal dollars

The Oslo Region Joint Powers Board received $2.35 million in federal funding and is seeking Minnesota and North Dakota state funding to reduce flooding along the Red River near Oslo, Minnesota.

A flooded field is next to  a grove of trees.
Oslo, Minnesota, farmers are frustrated by the flooding of their fields miles from the Red River. Photo taken May 16, 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek
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OSLO, Minn. — The Oslo Region Joint Powers Board, made up of several North Dakota and Minnesota farmers concerned about flooding along the Red River, has received $2.35 million in federal funding.

The funding was announced by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, during a stop in Oslo, Minnesota, on Jan. 11, said James Bergman, a farmer and member of Oslo Region Joint Powers Board. The funding will be awarded either through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Natural Resources Conservation Service, he said.

Flooding near Oslo, Minnesota, has destroyed agricultural land, washed out their township roads and caused thousands of dollars of damage to a railroad line that carries cars filled with wheat to the West Coast and southern United States.

The Oslo Region Joint Powers Board, formed in 2021 by the Border Township Associative Group, is a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization. Border Township Associative Group is made up of farmers from Turtle River in Grand Forks County, North Dakota; Walshville, in Walsh County, North Dakota; Big Woods, Forks, Higdem and Oak Park Townships in Minnesota; and the city of Oslo.

The BTAG formed 10 years ago to come up with an amicable solution to flooding that occurs along the Red River. The flooding has destroyed agricultural land, washed out township roads and caused thousands of dollars of damage to a railroad line that carries cars filled with wheat to the West Coast and southern United States.

According to a 2018 study by Fargo, North Dakota-based Houston Engineering, once the water reaches Oslo, a highway bridge built in 1958 and a railroad bridge constructed just after the turn of the century bottle up the water.

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The $360,000 Houston Engineering study, requested by BTAG, was funded by the Minnesota Legislature and the North Dakota Water Board. The study showed that the openings of the Oslo Highway Bridge, the Highway 317 Bridge — located 14 miles north of Oslo — and the Marais Bridge — located about two miles west of Oslo in North Dakota — allow significantly less water to pass through them than bridges north and south of Oslo.

The Oslo Region Joint Powers Board has proposed a $133 million flood mitigation project that would involve the restructuring of three road bridges and a railroad bridge near Oslo.

A man in a red shirt stands on a railroad track with water beside it.
Border Township Associative Group member James Bergman explains how the 1905 railroad bridge near Oslo, Minnesota, is one of the factors that restricts the flow of the Red River. Photo taken in May 2022.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

While the $2.35 million in federal funding is a fraction of the total project cost it “certainly gives encouragement to the group,” Bergman said.

The Oslo Region Joint Powers Board is continuing to work with Minnesota and North Dakota legislators to obtain funding from their respective legislatures.

During the 2022 Minnesota Legislative session Sen. Mark Johnson, a Republican who represents northwest Minnesota in District 1, introduced S.F. No. 1154, which would have appropriated $20 million in fiscal year 2024 to begin work on the project.

The bulk of that funding — $17.45 million — was to be used to extend the Oslo Highway bridge when it is reconstructed. The 64-year-old Oslo Bridge is slated to be replaced in a few years, and Oslo Region Joint Powers Board members believe that will be an opportune time to build a longer bridge than the existing one. The remaining $2.55 million would have been used for reconstruction of the Highway 317 Bridge, which is located in Marshall County at the Minnesota-North Dakota border.

The 2022 Minnesota Legislature didn’t take action on the bill. Bergman is hopeful that another northwest Minnesota lawmaker will support a funding bill during the 2023 legislative session.

In North Dakota, Reps. David Monson, Osnabrock; Karen Anderson, Grafton; Mike Beltz, Hillsboro; Jared Hagert, Emerado; Steve Vetter Grand Forks and Sens. Randy Lemm, Hilllsboro, Janna Myrdal, Edinburg; and Ronald Sorvaag, Fargo, introduced HB 1217, which would provide a one-time $37.25 million appropriation to the North Dakota Department of Transportation.

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The appropriation would be available for design, redesign, preliminary and final engineering, environmental analysis, right of way acquisition, and construction, including demolition. The appropriation under this section may be used only for acquisitions and improvements within North Dakota.

The bill was referred to the Appropriations Committee.

Four men look at a screen during a presentation.
From left, Gary Babinksi, Derek Gowan, Craig Jones and James Bergman are members of the Border Township Associative Group which formed nine years ago to come up with a flood mitigation plan. They met on Monday, May 16, 2022, at Bergman's farm to talk with Agweek reporters about their plan.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

When the BTAG formed, members' intent was to have civil conversations about a contentious water issue that 40 years earlier resulted in their parents and grandparents being engaged in a legal dispute over agricultural levees that were erected on both sides of the Red River.

The disagreement over the levees began in 1975 when Minnesota landowners built dikes to protect their land from a summer Red River flood. After the Minnesota landowners built the dikes, in turn, North Dakota farmers responded by constructing dikes on their side of the river, and a legal battle ensued.

On Oct. 31, 1986, a federal court order sought to solve the dispute by ordering that the dikes along both sides of the North Dakota-Minnesota border be lowered to a 36-foot flood level. Flood stage in Oslo is 28 feet, according to the National Weather Service. Since 1986, the Red River at Oslo has increased and frequently reaches heights of 38 feet. In spring 2022, the river crested at 37.35 feet.

In late May 2022, floodwaters, which had spread out for miles, still covered thousands of acres of land near Oslo, delaying spring planting.

Bergman believes the $2.35 million in federal funding is the spark plug that will get the project going.

"It's really money, now. We're super excited," he said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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