With memories of the 1997 floods still fresh, North Dakota officials are planning for significant flooding in the Devils Lake region and the Red River Valley after months of heavy rainfall and snow.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., convened a hearing of federal, state and local officials this week to discuss mitigation plans for possible flooding at Devils Lake and along the Red River in eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota.
“You can’t control Mother Nature,” Dorgan said. “The key thing here is to try to understand what’s necessary and what we can do to alert everybody, the (Army Corps of Engineers) and the cities, and cross our fingers and hope that the preparation helps avoid substantial damage if we have a major event.”
The Corps of Engineers, the National Weather Service, and state and local officials described flood preparations. They hope to be spared massive floods such as the one that deluged Grand Forks in 1997 and led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents.
Current projections are daunting. Forecasters estimate a nearly 99 percent chance that water levels at Devils Lake will exceed the record level of 1,449.2 feet. The lake currently is at 1,447.17 feet.
They project a 25 percent chance the lake will surpass 1452.1 feet and a 2 percent chance it would come within a foot of the dike protection level of 1,455 feet. The dike also has a five-foot freeboard _ extra space to allow for wave action.
Federal forecasters are predicting a 50 percent to 75 percent chance of major flooding in the Red River Valley.
“The threat for flooding this spring in that part of the country is high,” said Scott Dummer of the National Weather Service.
Dummer said snow hit Devils Lake on 23 days in December, with 24.5 inches falling in the region after Dec. 14. It compounded one of the wettest autumns on record in the cities of Devils Lake, Fargo and Grand Forks.
Around Devils Lake, about $500 million has been spent since 1993 to raise and relocate roads, move homes and buildings and build dikes in the city, which has a population of 7,000.
Dale Frink, North Dakota’s state engineer, estimated that if the lake rises 4 feet to 1,451 feet, about 33,000 acres of prime farm land could be lost.
Federal officials estimate that adding 5 feet to the dike that protects Devils Lake would cost about $78 million, with some estimates growing to more than $100 million. Past construction projects have been shared by federal and local governments.
“This amount would make it extremely difficult to fund at a local level,” said Devils Lake Mayor Fred Bott.
Col. Jon Christensen, district commander of the corps’ St. Paul District, said it would take two to three years to raise the dike embankments, underscoring the importance of starting construction.
Christensen said he was worried about how flooding would affect the Spirit Lake Nation, which borders the lake. Emergency temporary levees have been built and construction on a more permanent solution is expected to begin next summer.
“The lake may come up this spring before the permanent projects are in place,” Christensen said.
In Fargo, the Red River is at 15.06 feet. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said flood stage is 18 feet and if the river rises to 31 feet, the city would need to construct an earthen dike to protect City Hall.
“If it gets above 34 feet, the $64,000 question … is where is it going to go? That’s the big question,” Walaker said. “Are we concerned about the spring? Yes. Are we making preparations? Yes.”
Walaker said city officials were meeting regularly to prepare for potential flooding.
Dorgan said the economic stimulus plan being reviewed by congressional negotiators includes about $4.4 billion for the corps, some of which could be used to help address flooding in the region.
While the bill doesn’t include earmarks with specific funding levels, Dorgan said “when you talk about shovel-ready projects, there’s no more shovel-ready projects than the things you need to do in the next 30 days as a Corps of Engineers to move dirt and do things to prepare for floods.”
The corps has held several public meetings in the Devils Lake region and Christensen said a flood coordination meeting is planned in Fargo for Feb. 25.
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