Kudos are in order for Kristin Kirtz of MSUM.
Through the eyes of a wayward college student and aspiring journalist, she’s captured a portion of the uncertainty and indifference that many feel as the proposed project silently overwhelms better senses.
More curious is Kristin Kirtz’s corroboration of a behavioral defect that should have more people on edge.
Seeking Answers: My F-M diversion quest
By Kristin Kirtz
Originally Posted to High Plains Reader March 15th, 2012
Resubmitted to FMDam.org
It’s August 2009, and I move to Moorhead to study journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. My hometown of Olivia, Minn., sits over 20 miles from the nearest river, so flooding isn’t exactly an issue. In fact, when I hear about the Red River Flood of 2009 from friends at NDSU, I think, “What a great way to get out of school!” Having never seen a flood, I don’t realize all the damage a river can do and all the people it affects.
Two-and-a-half years later, I realize how much I care about the Fargo-Moorhead community and its struggle with the flood waters of the Red River. When controversy over the F-M Diversion project heightens, I want to understand the diversion’s impacts. I want to know, how can stopping a flood be controversial?
My quest starts at Fargo City Hall. Mayor Dennis Walaker’s office is decorated with articles about the 2009 flood, a picture with him and President Obama and assorted knick-knacks that have accumulated throughout the years. I know Mayor Walaker is a huge factor in this project. I also know he has dealt with the floods in the F-M area for a couple decades, initially as Fargo’s Director of Operations. Once retired, he decided to run for mayor to put his knowledge of the city to use. He definitely knows how devastating fighting the Red River year after year can be.
Walaker was labeled “Fargo’s Hero” during the 2009 flood but, as the diversion project continued, many questioned his motives. After he addressed diversion opponents in his January 2012 “State of the Cities” address, warning they’d be blamed if the project didn’t go through, response was immediate. One Hickson, N.D., writer, Marcus Larson, suggested Walaker was moving from “Hero to Nero” for his” lack of empathy” and “my way or the highway” approach.
Though Walaker realizes his statement was out of line, he blames it on being frustrated. He feels he is doing his best and that being criticized comes with the job title.
As the mayor sits slouched, his hands in his pockets, he talks about why he believes the flood diversion is the best option for the city; “My loyalty is to the 200 thousand people that derive and take care of their families in the cities of Dilworth, West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead,” he says.
To me, Walaker sounds unenthusiastic. Or maybe he’s just resigned to telling yet another reporter the obvious.
“We knew that when we started this project that there was going to be people who weren’t going to be happy,” he says. “We understand that, their concerns and so forth, but we have to look out for the many.”
Walaker believes that Fargo needs permanent protection. Fighting the flood with sandbags year after year cannot be an option. Students and local families give so much of their time every year. It’s not just the sandbagging but the planning of food, transportation and, hey, someone has to get the porta potties for the workers.
Not only will the diversion save time and energy, Walaker says it will also save money. In his 2012 “State of the Cities Address,” he explained that Fargo will spend $19 million annually in federal flood insurance and if the city were to ever lose a flood battle it would take at least 15 years to rebuild back to where Fargo is today.
I understand why Walaker wants and needs to put an end to the floods once and for all.
“Now you can blame this all on wet cycle or whatever but things have gotten worse for our community in the last 30 years,” he says. “I guess my question has to be very simple. Do we have to fail as a community to get permanent flood protection? Do we have to be another Grand Forks or Minot? Do we have to fail?”
Although the diversion would keep the F-M area from flooding, the water still needs to go somewhere and that somewhere is the smaller communities south of Fargo. This “locally preferred” plan would build a diversion channel 35 miles long and a half-mile wide. This would take the water that would go into the cities of Fargo and Moorhead and direct it to add inches and sometimes feet of flooding to the towns of Oxbow, Hickson, Comstock and the subdivision of Bakke.
As the mayor pushes forward, others are trying to move his plan in the other direction. Groups against the “locally preferred” plan are passionate about stopping the diversion from wiping out their communities.
To find out more about the opposition, I head to Aaland Law Firm in Fargo where I meet with Cash Aaland and Trana Rogne. Both active in the MnDak Upstream Coalition, they feel strongly that the current diversion plan is unnecessary.
I’m excited to speak to Aaland because he has an interesting perspective. Not only does he live outside Fargo in the area that will be flooded near Christine, he also owns and works at his law firm in Fargo.
Both men understand that Fargo needs permanent flood protection. Aaland laughs as he points out that he derives his livelihood from the F-M community, and he would hate to see the city ruined by a flood. However, his demeanor becomes stern when he explains his reasoning: “Fargo’s rejected solutions. The first thing they rejected was the Army Corps’ favorite plan, the Minnesota side, that wouldn’t have destroyed our community and it would have provided Fargo with permanent protection.”
Although Mayor Walaker says the Army Corp moved away from the Minnesota plan for numerous reason—affording less protection for the city and affecting more people than the “locally preferred” plan—Aaland believes there is more to the story. He thinks the mayor’s goal is to protect undeveloped land south of Fargo, though he adds that Walaker won’t admit to this.
Aaland believes this land is being saved so that Fargo can grow, and he is frustrated because the Fargo Diversion Board acts as though flooding upstream communities is the only option. Aaland and the MnDak Upstream Coalition feel that there are ways to give Fargo the flood protection it needs without harming their upstream homes.
As I listen to Aaland and Rogne, facts about the diversion pour out. Rogne’s list of effects hits me hard: “Hundreds of buildings and homes gone, thousands of people relocated. Three communities destroyed. Two other communities re-diked. The farming in the southern valley will be gone completely because there is no crop insurance, and they haven’t figured that out yet. All the churches will be gone because once the community is gone the church doesn’t exist anymore and the graveyards will be flooded … They can relocate the people but they can’t replace Oxbow as a community.”
As Aaland listens to Rogne, the expression on his face changes from emotionless to aggravated. He interrupts: “It’s not necessary! Fargo could have permanent flood protection; they could even have their diversion, without this, without destroying our community. But they deny that and they refuse that, they refuse to even look into it, and it’s frustrating.”
Rogne explains that it’s not just the houses that are being destroyed but people’s histories. Now retired, Rogne, grew up on the farm where he is now living east of Kindred. In the 1960s he moved to California and raised a family. Now that his children are out of college and on their own, he moved backed to the farm that has been in his family for about 140 years—only for it to be taken away if the diversion moves forward.
My research leaves me confused, and I feel as though I need more questions answered. I want to know why the current diversion plan was chosen and why past plans were discarded. I decide to phone the Army Corps of Engineers based in St. Paul, Minn. Aaron Snyder, planner and project manager, is the person to ask.
Snyder explains that the current diversion plan is referred to as the North Dakota locally preferred plan. The Minnesota plan would protect the towns south of Fargo, like Oxbow and Hickson and is the preferred plan of the MnDak Upstream Coalition. Snyder says that while the Minnesota plan would work, it only protects the F-M area from the Red River and the Wild Rice River. In contrast, the North Dakota plan protects the cities of Fargo and Moorhead from the Red River, the Wild Rice River, the Sheyenne River, the Rush and the Lower Rush Rivers.
“The big difference is the Minnesota plan did have downstream impacts and that would have impacted many more people downstream than the upstream impacts we’re looking at for the North Dakota plan,” Snyder says. “About 90 percent of the benefits from the project happen in North Dakota, and Minnesota receives about 10 percent of the benefits. So, there seemed to be a desire to have the project in North Dakota.”
Later, I visit with Diane Johnson, a resident of Fergus Falls, who feels that the “locally preferred” plan means she will lose part of her past. Raised in California, she says, “I longed for the land of my ancestors.” When she and her husband retired, they moved to Minnesota and a lifelong dream finally came true. However, the land her ancestors settled—everything from the farms to the cemeteries—will be flooded by the diversion. She blogs about her concerns in a piece titled, “The Irony of it all”:
“I see the need for a plan. I sympathize with the victims. But not at the expense of making my ancestral lands the sacrificial lamb. Particularly when the staging, storage and deliberately man-made flooding is proposed to be done in an area where, long ago, the pioneers wisely chose their land, carefully managed their acreage through hardship and hard work, and have not been troubled by deluge all these years, neither by man nor God.”
I end my quest knowing I don’t have enough answers to form an opinion. After weeks of research, I don’t know if I want a diversion built or where it should be. After listening to Mayor Walaker and Aaron Snyder, I understand why they favor the North Dakota “locally preferred” plan. But, when I think about Cash Aaland, Trana Rogne and Diane Johnson, I sympathize with the losses they’ll suffer if the current plan moves forward. I wonder if my confusion means more work needs to be done. I also wonder if more voices need to be involved before plans can be finalized
I know I’m not the only person confused about this issue. In fact, most of the students, friends and co-workers I speak to about the F-M diversion plan, brush off my questions. I realize that for many, especially young adults, the topic is either too overwhelming, or they don’t care what happens. Even those who do care seem confused, not sure what is proposed or the effects it will have on them and others.
I’m relieved to hear county commissioners in Richland County and Wilkin County are reaching across state lines to join efforts, perhaps even hiring their own engineer. It makes me hopeful that maybe, there’s another solution that will satisfy both sides of this diversion issue.
I also think that reading newspapers, listening to others and skimming websites can help the community stay aware of the latest information and eventually find the right answer. An issue this complex needs to be discussed by informed citizens. Please take time to visit the websites listed with this article and join the discussion.
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