NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Changing The Course

Does it seem that we’ve been fighting floods forever? Pretty close. Residents along the Red River have been wrangling Mother Nature every 10 or 15 years since settlement began. Inevitably, Mother seems to have the upper hand.

In between flood emergencies, we generally turn on each other. Fargo-Moorhead and its neighbors have been sharing vastly divergent opinions of the F-M Diversion Project for fully 10 years. Sometimes it seems as if the bickering will never end … can never be fully resolved. No local issue has ever drawn in more head-butting stakeholders — town and country, businesses and homeowners, two cities, two counties, two states and the Feds — or attempted to temper more sizzling degrees of personal and civic self-interest.

Yet the record does show it can be done. Victory has been achieved before … and by nearly the same cast of impassioned characters.

Sixty years ago, draglines finally attacked the course of the tangled river and straightened out at least a few of its legendary kinks. In 1959, Fargo-Moorhead tackled the issue of containing the Red’s epic rampage in a victory that holds some lessons — and some hope.

The Red has been soaking Fargo-Moorhead’s feet ever since the cities’ sketchy, sweaty birth in 1871. By 1882, they were fighting the first of the floods that arrived like clockwork through World War I. After taking a break in the Dirty Thirties, the sluggish river returned with a vengeance in 1943. St. John’s Hospital (now Prairie St. John’s) stood on the bank of an oxbow that reached to Fargo’s Fourth Street; it had to be evacuated.

The river’s path was different then. South of Main Avenue, it took a lazy westward loop from its current course to the edge of Island Park, then back to Second Street. A generous finger of Minnesota pointed straight to the brand-new F-M Community Theater on Fourth Street South.

To no one’s surprise, epic floodwaters returned in 1950 and again in 1952. Streets ran deep on both sides of the river, reaching 5 feet on Broadway. Water stood hip-high on the main floor of Dommer’s Boathouse near Fourth Avenue Southwest in Moorhead, the beloved spot where fun seekers had been renting boats and canoes for decades to enjoy the river’s calmer moments. Hundreds of homes and business were swamped. Utilities were damaged and destroyed. The cost to both cities was enormous.

The soggy cities dreamed of a solution. Though their physical footprint was a fraction of today’s (Fargo with 38,256 people and Moorhead, 14,870) and embraced a far shorter stretch of river, temporary dikes didn’t do the trick. Yet no one could see the way to salvation. Ideas were tossed out, like scrapping St. John’s Hospital (which had had to be evacuated) and rebuilding on higher ground. Then they were systematically shot down — impossible, impractical, unaffordable.

At last, frustrated city fathers spotted a glimmer of light in Washington, where in 1950, the Disaster Relief Act empowered the Federal Emergency Management Agency — FEMA — to help deal with flooding. The two cities, which been fighting alone, spotted an ally. As the clean-up began in 1952, Mayor Murray Baldwin and the City Commission appointed a committee to work with the Army Corps of Engineers. It submitted its plan just a year later. The goal: to straighten out the critical snarl in the river that inundated downtown and speed the water on its way north.

And the outcry was instantly ferocious. Almost six dozen occupied homes would have to be demolished on both sides of the river, along with businesses and facilities dating back to the steamboat days.

Moorhead feared the more easterly channel, bounded by an enormous permanent levee on the Fargo side, would back up water onto its dependably higher, drier ground. City leaders fretted that downstream landowners would sue them if the amended flow of floodwaters caused damage to their farms. The beloved boathouse and swimming hole would have to go. Even the proto-environmentalists of the day had their say, decrying the removal of 200 trees from the riverbank.

But flood-control proponents persisted through six years of often-heated squabbling. The break finally came in 1959, when the recalcitrant North Dakota Legislature passed a measure specifically permitting Moorhead to sue the city of Fargo for any damages that might ensue.

By July, Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz would preside over the draglines that dug a new, straighter channel about a quarter-mile east of what had been Minnesota’s western border. They worked through the summer. At the end of October, the river’s flow was permanently diverted into its new pathway, and the blip of age-old former riverbed went dry.

Grandparents among us today still remember the sight: a mucky, barren depression punctuated by the old dam. Crowds gathered to see what they could see — submerged skeletons, perhaps? Submerged treasure? A stolen safe had been long rumored to be ditched down below. Police investigated, just in case. But to thrill-seekers’ disappointment, they spotted nothing but a rusty bicycle and a few corroded oil drums.

Meanwhile, the Corps also dealt with less controversial obstacles north of the Veterans Administration. One of three small adjacent oxbows was eliminated outright with crosswise excavation. The other two were fitted with weir dams that permit normal flow from day to day but divert high water to a straighter, broader path.

But besting Mother Nature by epic engineering wasn’t the end of the story then, as it hasn’t yet been today. By straightening the rerouted the Red River — the historic border between two states — 22.5 acres of what was still legally Minnesota was marooned on the wrong side. Not until the U.S. Congress approved an interstate compact in 1962 did the boundary shift east to the new riverbank.

Clay County’s loss was the city of Fargo’s gain. Remember that … and thank the North Star State next time your children sled on the Dike East or you park your car in the big lot east of the Stage at Island Park.

Sixty years ago, we won one. Two cities, two states and the federal government succeeded in not only taming a fraction of Mother Nature’s power, but untangling their competing interests long enough to redraw the map. Odds are, we can do it again.

(Thanks to archivist Mark Peihl of the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County and author Terry Shoptaugh, author of Red River Floods, for the research on which this is based.)

DAVE BRUNER: Photo Gallery — Fall Colors

Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner has been out for several days this fall photographing the fall colors in our area. Here are some of the spectacular images he’s captured.

MICHAEL BOGERT: Photo Gallery — Down By The River

Grand Forks photographer Michael Bogert recently took a walk along the Red River and did his best to catch one of these great horned owls in flight but to no avail.

NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Flashbacks To The Floods

It seems wrong to think about ourselves when Houston is drowning … but how can we avoid the flashbacks?

While we agonize for Texans fighting for their lives, the news video is all too familiar in our own neck of the woods. Here in the Red River Valley, it brings back images we’d all rather forget — Fargo-Moorhead’s valiant fight against then-record waters in 1997; the devastation that followed a few days later in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks; and the all-time record crest in 2009 that nearly took us under.

Memory is a funny thing. Terrors that seem indelible do, somehow, fade and dull in the sunshine. The near-constant pounding and growl of crews building permanent dikes along the river has relieved bad dreams of days when the roaring Red threatened to erase our normal, everyday life for good.

Today, at the end of a dry, dry summer, we’d mostly forgotten those floods … until Hurricane Harvey. Our situation, though different in so many ways, was just as desperate as what we’re witnessing on the nightly news. This is what the weather can do. This is what our own weather has done, as recently as the days when today’s second- and third-graders were being born.

This is what it will do again.

But memory dims and becomes domesticated. Maybe that accounts for the ho-hum that’s come to surround the F-M Area Diversion for most of us in the communities it will protect. While critics strategize ways to torpedo the mammoth $2 billion plan to slide the torrent around the cities, we who live here have pretty much sat back while government leaders have done all the heavy lifting.

Perhaps we count on Moorhead’s and Fargo’s city-centric efforts to keep our front steps dry. Here in Moorhead, we’ve invested $105 million, along with the state of Minnesota, in an 11-mile system of earthen levees that stretches from north of the country club to 50th Avenue South. Two hundred forty-nine homes have been sacrificed to make way. We’ve built 12 new pump stations and 78 stormwater gates over the past eight years. If the city hustles to build clay dikes in front of the 80-some holdouts who punctuate that would-be impervious wall, we should be safe to a crest of 39.5 feet.

Fargo has been just as busy with its downtown floodwall and 20 miles of earthen dikes. Some 200 homes have been bought out there, moved or demolished, with many more still in limbo. South along the river’s twisting oxbows, the same kind of campaign has reduced formerly tiny Briarwood to open fields and is relocating Oxbow. Its goal, too, is to protect to FEMA’s 100-year flood level.

We like what we’re seeing these days. We aren’t required to buy flood insurance anymore (though some of us, prone to cross our fingers, still do). Those new floodwalls look good. On the south side, where we live, we barely remember the neighbors’ homes that lined the riverbank just seven years ago. We’ve come to rather like the open sweep of grassy dike across the street, where their kids so recently played with our own.

Secure, complacent — and saving a little money, to boot. What floods? Our cities have invested a fortune in thwarting the threat of once-in-100-years flooding … and most of us apparently figure we won’t be around long to have to worry about it again.

Except. Our climate is growing warmer, wetter and — yes — wilder. It’s a paradox that, despite the drought to the west, precipitation is trending upward. Horticulturists have bumped us up from growing zone 3 to 4. Storms are stormier. Though winter snows have been scant in recent years, the specter of 1996-1997 — 117 inches — will never fully melt from our imagination.

And now, Houston’s agony again demonstrates what “unprecedented” really means.

All the hundreds of millions already spent building our cities’ walls and dikes should indeed be adequate to protect us from Red River tantrums equal to those we’ve already witnessed. But what of the next?

That’s where the diversion — the megaproject most of us understand only dimly — comes in. It’s been chugging along since 2008, ironically begun a year before the worst flood in F-M history. The numbers are too big for the ordinary mind to really grasp. That goes double for the engineering. Weighing every conceivable alternative, local leaders agree the Corps of Engineers has chosen the only one that provides protection from the degree of disaster that we still can barely imagine. The unusual public-private partnership received formal federal approval a year ago, and the Corps at work on the first steps. Projected completion date: 2024.

If, that is, opponents don’t manage to sink the ship. Critics have attacked from every angle, raising often-valid points that have surely made the present project better. But the controversies have morphed into an impassioned quest that’s only gained momentum.

Everyone loves a good bout of David-vs.-Goliath, and the mission to sink the diversion has always been portrayed in just those terms. Some of the main players on the Goliath side surely have fed the furor — the word “arrogant” keeps coming up. Resentment squirts its bile in many directions: town vs. rural, wealthy vs. down-to-earth, small towns vs. the not-so-big cities that pass for a metropolis in these parts. But let’s examine the problem with how roles in this epic drama have been cast.

Take a closer look at what critics portray as the forces of evil. What I see right here around me in the middle of purported Goliath-land is something quite different than the looming, faceless, heartless force that’s been depicted. Instead of the monolithic villain that anti-diversion challengers feel they face, I see tens of thousands of people just like them. I see families living along this ruthless river who love their homes and need their livelihoods every bit as much as the valiant Davids upstream who are battling to protect their own.

This challenge belongs to all of us. None of us wins unless we press forward together toward a mutually acceptable solution. Watch the news from Houston. Listen to their stories. Feel their fear and desperation. Weigh the overwhelming odds against ever regaining “normal.”

And then let this one overwhelming truth consume you: What we’re seeing in Texas … that could all too easily be us.

Compromise, you guys! Persist in negotiation! Go for the mutual win. We’re all Davids here, and the real Goliath is the Red River itself. Give up a little to gain a lot. That’s where we’ll find our heroes.

It’s not a question of whether we’ll ever face the Red’s full fury again. It’s simply, “When?”