Retention authority claims gradual progress
FARGO – The Red River Retention Authority was formed in 2010 to pursue water retention projects throughout the basin to reduce the impacts of flooding.
The authority, a joint initiative combining water management districts in North Dakota and Minnesota, was launched with a sense of urgency in the aftermath of the record 2009 flood.
Now, almost four years later, the Red River Retention Authority still is working on compiling a list of proposed retention projects in the basin with the goal of reducing severe flood flows on the river by 20 percent at the border with Canada.
What’s taking so long?
Several factors help to explain the seeming lack of visible progress in identifying water retention projects, according to retention authority officials:
- The main obstacle, many agree, is that everybody likes the idea of holding back water in the abstract, but nobody wants to hold water on their land, which more often than not is farmland.
- The long delay in passing a new farm bill, which contains significant conservation funding that could help build eligible retention projects, stalled progress.
- It took time to complete studies to identify potential project sites. Those studies now have been completed and tested.
“Each element of the whole process has taken a bit longer than any of us would like,” said Pat Downs, executive director of the Red River Retention Authority, which is based in Fargo.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, has been pushing to have the Red River Basin named as one of eight designated priority areas, which would place it at the eligibility forefront for conservation funding available through the farm bill.
That designation is expected this spring, said Keith Weston, Red River Basin coordinator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“That’ll definitely set the wheels in motion,” he said.
If the Red River Valley is named as one of the priority areas, it can submit proposals for funding from a pool of money that will total $500 million over the farm bill’s five-year period, as well as another $120 million or more each year under various wetland or grassland easement programs, Weston said.
The retention authority will submit proposals by the end of September. To qualify for federal funds, each project also must have matching funds from state and local partners.
Meanwhile, each local water district on both sides of the Red River is working on its own project lists that will be compiled by the retention authority, which has the role of assembling a comprehensive plan.
The retention authority is composed of the collective groups of local water resource boards on both sides of the Red River, Minnesota’s Red River Watershed Management Board and North Dakota’s Red River Joint Water Resource District.
Reducing flows on the Red River 20 percent in a 1997-level flood would reduce the crest at Fargo-Moorhead by 2 feet, water officials have said.
But doing that would require impounding 1 million acre-feet of water below the border with Canada, distributed among many projects throughout the basin.
The co-chairmen of the Red River Retention Authority’s board said the group has achieved real progress in identifying potential project sites, and the results will become apparent.
At the local level, retention projects are moving forward, both in Minnesota and North Dakota, officials said.
Examples in the southern valley include the Red Path Retention Project in Minnesota’s Bois de Sioux watershed and a planned “dry dam” on the upper Maple River in North Dakota, a smaller version of the Maple River Dam, which holds water temporarily during severe floods.
A draft study for the Red River Basin Commission, an advisory and study group that strives for reaching water management consensus in the basin, found that the 20 percent reduction goal generally could be met if 96 impoundment sites are developed, collectively comprising 559,200 acre-feet.
But each project would have to gain support from local landowners, who will want to see local benefits, officials said.
“All we need is cooperation from landowners and a ton of money and we’re good to go,” said John Finney, co-chairman of the Red River Retention Authority board, representing Minnesota watersheds.
“Things are going to happen, they really are,” he added.
Gary Thompson, the authority board co-chairman representing North Dakota water resource districts, said the group is moving forward now that important studies have been completed.
“It’s going to take a lot of time and effort,” Thompson said, adding that officials want to reach agreements with landowners, rather than force projects. “It comes down to the grass roots,” he said.