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Original Blain Johnson Letter titled: Why Doesn’t Fargo Change Flood Stage?

Letter - Why Doesn't Fargo Change Flood Stage

There are two versions of a recent letter to the editor circulating from Blain Johnson, NDSU Alumni, current masters student at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va and former Oxbow resident.

Whenever letters to the editor are published it’s a good thing. It is the public’s opportunity to share thoughts and insight into matters that affect us all in different ways, however, what would prompt the Fargo Forum to tamper, with yet another letter to the editor, to fit what the Forum deems appropriate titling and content? This isn’t about the occasional spelling correction or punctuation mark…, this is about allowing readers the opportunity to see the message as the submitting author intended from their fingertips to your eyes.

For example, the authors title read:

“Why Doesn’t Fargo Change Flood Stage?”

…, but the Fargo Forum changed the authors title to:

“Letter: Use flood stages honestly” < read Fargo Forum edited version

The authors original title appears to be a fair and respectful question, however, the Forum title feels different.

Below is the authors original document, spell-checked and paragraphed for ease of reading.


Why Doesn’t Fargo Change Flood Stage?

By: Blain Johnson
12/2/2013

On December 23rd, the official USGS gage for the Red River at Wahpeton will increase its Flood Stage from 10 to 11 feet; it will also increase Moderate and Major Stage by one foot each. What is with the change? The stages are set by the officials of the jurisdictional boundary the gage is placed, in cooperation with the local National Weather Service Office, meaning the Wahpeton City Council and Richland County Emergency Manager are ultimately responsible for the change to this particular gage. The change was passed due to the increased protection and investment the cities of Wahpeton and Breckinridge have undertaken since 1997 to combat major flooding; the new levels reflect better protected, prepared, and capable cities.

Of all the cities in the area that have spent money on flood protection in recent years, Fargo and Moorhead top the list. Since 2009, there have been 25 miles of permanent levee’s constructed throughout the two cities, and over $200 million spent on increased protection; $107m from Fargo and $88m from Moorhead. In 1997, a 38 foot flood would require 670,000 sandbags to protect 140 flood prone homes, today, that number would be just 33,000 sandbags to protect 8 homes, the situation is similar in Fargo.

After the 2013 ‘flood’, the Grand Forks National Weather Service office approached the City of Fargo about changing their flood stages, and the city basically said “No thank you.” Why on earth would a city that has charged ½ cent sales tax over the past three years, at the cost of millions of dollars to local taxpayers, choose not to have these funds reflected in a more prepared community by raising the flood stage? According to the National Weather Service, the only real effect of a flood under 22 feet is Elm Street which goes under around 18 feet, the basis for the current flood stage. So 300 yards of Elm Street causes enough of a disruption to a city nearly 50 square miles to justify a ‘flood’? The change is such an easy process, what could possibly be the reason for not doing it?

The city of Fargo spent $2 million to prepare its citizens against the 2013 flood, which at 38 feet would have been the 5th highest flood on record, which is less than 1000 times the cost of the proposed diversion, meaning we could hit 38 feet for 1000 years before justifying the cost of such a project. The 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks cost the city $2.1 billion dollars; adjusted for inflation. That begs the question, if the city of Fargo were to suddenly stop their current mitigation projects, and the river happens to get as high as 2009, and the dikes happen to fail, and the fail happens in a spot that would flood a large section of town, would the city even incur enough damages to justify the original cost of such a monstrous project?

I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Management from NDSU and I can tell you I would not even consider signing off on a plan like that, the cost/benefit ratio is way too low. The flood stage should be raised from 18 to 22 feet, moderate stage from 25 to 29 feet, and major stage from 30 to 34 feet. This change would have made this past spring a moderate flood, a term everyone that lives in the area would likely agree it was based on preparedness and disruption levels. Nobody wants to fight a flood every year, but did we really “fight” the 2013 flood, which was technically three feet over major flood stage? Perhaps it was simply the fanfare around the possibility of a large flood. The costs of flood mitigation at the 38-40 foot levels is so infantile compared to the cost of a diversion, it is laughable. Instead of choosing to protect against something that has never happened and may never happen, perhaps it is best to continue to chip away at local projects that could eventually protect the city to 41 feet at much less of a cost than a diversion.

So what is behind this refusal to change the stages on the Red in Fargo? Is it because the 300 yards of Elm Street is an integral part of the city’s infrastructure that a rise to 18’ can be considered a key disruption; or is the refusal rooted in a deeper plan which involves a costly flood protection project for Fargo to seemingly prevent the ‘major’ floods from continuing to happen? Flood stages should be used as a tool for community awareness and not as a bargaining chip to sub verse citizens and legislators. Let’s follow Wahpeton’s lead and adopt more representative flood stages.

Blain Johnson is a 2012 graduate of the NDSU Emergency Management program who is currently studying for his masters in Biodefense at George Mason University.

2 Responses to “ Original Blain Johnson Letter titled: Why Doesn’t Fargo Change Flood Stage? ”

  1. Great letter.

    What’s behind the refusal to change the flood stage on the red in Fargo?

    Two engineering firms, planning to make their company millions upon millions in the next decade if they can keep pumping out bogus studies that a huge diversion is the only thing that can help. AND The corp of engineers, a couple of lead team members making their careers from a huge project like the fargo debacle (diversion).

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