FEMA, floods, and funding in Fargo-Moorhead


Fargo used to be best known nationally for the 1996 Coen brothers movie. Now Fargo’s on the map for the Red River’s repeated attempts to take it off of the map. Due to an impressive wet cycle, the Red River of the North has been exceeding flood stage annually since 1993, according to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE). The Fargo-Moorhead community has been greatly affected by these floods. These communities’ mitigation planning and implementation is worth examining.

It is not usual for the Red River of North to experience major floods every season, as some with short-attention spans for history are starting to believe. The river has exceeded flood stage in 47 of the past 108 years, and a minority of those were major floods. The 2009 flood crested at a massive 41 feet, and the last major flood before then was in 1997, when the river crested at 39.5 feet in Fargo-Moorhead. 

Last year, the flood crested at 36.5 feet. On a historic basis, then, the Red River is not always a danger, but as of late it has become an annual problem. The National Weather Service’s most recent flood outlook gives a 75% likelihood that this spring’s flood in Fargo-Moorhead will be worse than last year. They gave a 25% chance of it being worse than the 2009 flood, that outlook came even before late February’s heavy snow.

The question on many minds is a simple one: why is the river flooding so much? For one, the Red River of the North (called such to distinguish it from the Red River in Texas and Oklahoma) flows northward, eventually emptying into Lake Winnipeg. As the river thaws and flows northward, it eventually meets ice jams further north that have not yet thawed, causing the water to rise and flood the surrounding areas.

The big problem is that Fargo-Moorhead is flat-which makes sense, as it used to be the bottom of the glacial Lake Agassiz. Moorhead is approximately four feet higher than Fargo, which boasts a total of ten feet in elevation change across its 13-mile length. North Dakota State University has a whole website dedicated to the Fargo floods, with information from geology to hydrology. 

The two cities have done a great deal of preparation for these floods. In the short-term, sandbagging and emergency levees take everyone’s attention, as well as Fargo-Moorhead community members’ time. The latest development on that front is that Moorhead has begun paying temporary workers to fill sandbags, while Fargo continues relying on volunteer labor. Sandbags are a last-minute effort, however, in the grander scheme of flood prevention. According to a FEMA document on disaster resistance in Fargo, there have been a variety of prevention and mitigation tactics, from advanced storm sewer management to extensive flood insurance.

Property damage is one of major flooding’s biggest costs, and many houses line the Red River, making flooding something of an inevitability for them. To mitigate these costs, the cities have focused on property acquisition along the river. After the 1997 flood, Fargo purchased 82 different properties for a total of $6.2 million. The houses were then removed, and the properties were maintained as open space to prevent further development.

Both Fargo and Moorhead continue to use this method, and some homeowners find relief in the chance to move out of the flood-battered area, as the local news outlet WDAY has reported.

Still, some are calling for a more long-term solution, like a diversion plan. After the 2009 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers developed one that would divert the overflowing Red River along a 36 mile long ditch, away from Fargo-Moorhead. As MPR reports, the ditch would be 30 feet deep, 600 feet wide, with at least a $1.4 billion price tag. The planned, locally preferred diversion would route around to the west of Fargo, and then connect back into the Red River north of Fargo.

The Army Corps of Engineers studied the technical aspects of this planned diversion until last fall, when their findings revealed downstream impacts that they couldn’t define. Brett Coleman, project manager at the Corps in St. Paul, informed us that they are considering several concepts to mitigate impacts up and down stream.

One of these is an upstream staging area south of Fargo. Water would be held there during a flood, significantly decreasing the impact on downstream communities. Another is a secondary diversion within the main diversion structure.

As Moorhead city engineer Bob Zimmerman pointed out, there is support for this project in the Fargo-Moorhead community, but there is concern from smaller communities to the north and south of the cities about higher flood waters for them resulting from diversion efforts in the bigger cities. As we have written in the past, however, Fargo-Moorhead is the economic soul of the area, and its protection from excessive flooding is paramount to the area’s survival.

A great deal of information from Fargo, Moorhead, and the Army Corps of Engineers can be found here. If all goes well, funding is received, and they agree on a plan, it will take approximately eight years to build the diversion. As long as it may take, however, this is a critical public infrastructure project. Significant and primarily unpredictable floods show the need for it, as area communities wage annual high water battles. Keeping Fargo-Moorhead dry is good for Minnesota and North Dakota’s economies. A diversion is a wise investment in the future of these two states.