Red River flood protection forcing farmers to relocate

Mikkel Pates
Forum News Service

MOORHEAD, Minn. — As governments start weighing the odds of a 2020 spring flood on the Red River of the North, farmers and businesspeople are more worried about future floods when a river diversion system is in place to protect Fargo-Moorhead.

The F-M Area Diversion — the “Fargo Dam” — has been coming together for about a decade and is expected to cost at least $2.75 billion. After being temporarily held back by a levee, the water would flow either through the Red River channel or through a diversion ditch to be built around the west edge of the Fargo metro area.

Without unforeseen delays, the project could be completed by 2026.

Matt Ness, 46, says all of this muddies up his future, and future generations of Nesses.

He farms with his family about 12 miles south of Moorhead. That’s upstream of the dam along the north-flowing Red River.

The project is headed by the Diversion, coordinating funding, permits and construction with federal, state and local governments. According to the Diversion Authority website, the project will protect more than 235,000 people in the event of a “100-year flood.”

But in previous so-called “100-year” floods, the Ness farmstead has never flooded.

Ness says Diversion Authority data indicates the water would be 2 to 3 feet high on his farmstead and that this could happen every 15 or 20 years.

His family has received a letter, telling them they’ll need to move their farmstead structures somewhere else. Where, how and when have yet to be described. He expects a buyout, he says, but the options are unclear. “It’s a lot of guessing, a lot of unknowns,” Ness says.

Higher ground

Matt’s grandfather, Ralph Ness, grew up nearby but moved to this spot in 1941 because “everyone knew it was a high spot along the river.” Then came his father Larry, now 78, and now Matt, who is 46.

Ness farms about 2,500 acres on his own and rents about a third of them from up to 10 landowners. He raises wheat and soybeans, as well as sugar beets for Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative in Wahpeton, N.D.

The Ness farmstead is about a quarter-mile from the Red River bed, but is nestled among two “horseshoe coulees” that can range from 2- to 15-feet deep with water depending on the time of year.

If the diversion project wasn’t there, Ness says he’d have likely built larger “cold storage” for equipment and perhaps more grain storage. He would likely have built a second house on the farmstead, or re-established residence.

Joel Paulsen, executive director of the FM Area Diversion Authority since last September, acknowledges the project is “really impactful” for upstream people, and that the diversion includes a financial mitigation program. (Version 4 of the mitigation plan is on the website; Version 5 is being developed.)

“We know we can’t compensate somebody for a fourth-generation farm, and that makes it difficult. We’ve taken an approach to be fair, flexible and friendly as we approach these folks that are going to need to be relocated.”

Wider impacts

The upstream staging or floodwater retention area covers 40 to 47 square miles in an irregular triangle and accounts for some 25,000 to 30,000 acres. The area includes about 100 residents of which about 20 are active farms.

Curt Bjertness, 62, has been general manager of the CW Valley Cooperative for 33 years.

CW Co-op has headquarters in Wolverton, Minn., with grain facilities there and an agronomy center west of Comstock, Minn., and a fertilizer plant between the two towns. He thinks Plan B impacts his co-op facilities less but his patrons on the North Dakota side of the border more

“We haven’t been in favor of either one,” he says. He’s objected to giving the Diversion Authority access to company land for soil boring tests. “They’ll go to court and get their right to access, without our approval,” Bjertness says.

Bjertness believes the diversion will hurt 143 farmers who patronize the co-op, marketing their soybeans, corn and wheat here, and purchasing farm inputs. One patron has had to sell some land for the project. Others will have to relocate and will move farther away, he says.

The Diversion Authority has had to buy 8,000 acres for the ditch and embankment to divert water around Fargo to the west. The authority has purchased 350 land parcels, with some landowners owning multiple parcels.

Bjertness lives on the North Dakota side of the ride of the river, near Hickson, and was a member of the Kindred, N.D., School Board for nine years. “It’s not just our company that’s going to be impacted — farmers, the school district is going to be impacted” he says. “From Kindred, east to the river, at least down to North Dakota Highway 46, you can’t build there anymore.”

Last ditch efforts

The project has changed over time. The current plan, referred to as Plan B, increased some impacts to the North Dakota side. Opponents have delayed the project, which has had the effect of increasing the cost.

The diversion will start operating with a 37-foot flood (a measurement at a Fargo water treatment plant) running through the river — split between the river bed and the 30-mile artificial diversion ditch. The idea is to protect Fargo from 100-year floods and a chance to defend a 500-year flood.

The record flood was 40.84 feet in 2009 and then there were 39.9 foot floods in 1997 and 1897. In 2019, there was a “top 10” crest of 35.03, feet, which was abated only by a long, lingering thaw into the month of April.

“Plan A” was discarded because it would hurt too many people north to the Canadian border and beyond.

In December 2018, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved “Plan B” after talks between North Dakota and Minnesota governors. It included 54 requirements — including that they needed to get local approval. The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District that is part of the staging area in Minnesota is challenging the DNR’s permit in a contested case hearing June 8. The Diversion Authority is siding with the DNR on that matter. Separately, the Buffalo-Red district denied a permit to the Diversion Authority, which is challenging that decision in Becker County court.

Meanwhile, a federal judge has allowed construction to move forward. The project has acquired land in the channel area, as well as in scattered southwest areas and rights-of-entries.

There are plans for crop insurance treatment for farmers in the retention area.

Mark Askegaard, a Moorhead organic farmer and a member of an agricultural subcommittee for the Diversion Authority, says an earlier North Dakota State University study of impacts indicated farmers in the impacted staging area could always plant soybeans — an insurable crop — as late as July 4, with limited financial impacts. The study is being updated for Plan B.

If spring flooding occurs in March and early April, that might delay crop seeding for one to two weeks. Ness worries about debris from the wooded riverbed that might have to be cleared from fields, though the Diversion Authority says it will help with that.

Ness notes that ice jams that can intensify flooding in a small area are another wild card.

“The greater the flood, the longer the water would be held back,” Ness says.

Matt Ness, 46, joined his father, Larry, in farming south of Moorhead, Minn., in 1998, the year after a major 1997 flood. Matt, who’s managed it since 2008, says his farmstead wasn’t flooded then, but it could be under the F-M Diversion’s Plan B.
Matt Ness says he would have built more cold storage for farm equipment, and perhaps more grain storage at the farm 12 miles south of Moorhead, Minn., if it wasn’t part of a flood water retention area a major Red River diversion. Photo taken Jan. 22, in rural Moorhead, Minn.
The CW Co-op elevator based at Wolverton, Minn., emphasizes its opposition to the F-M Diversion of the Red River, which officials say would harm their company and its farmer-patrons.