'Big' Red Forces Rethink on Floods

As Clinton visits flooded area, debate grows over how to harness US rivers.

Normally a narrow, sluggish stream, the Red River of the North is currently the largest river in the nation, carrying more water than the Mississippi.

A child of the Ice Age, the precious Red has now spread itself over vast portions of surrounding flat farmlands, swallowing homes along the border of Minnesota and North Dakota, and forcing most of the 50,000 residents of Grand Forks, N.D., to evacuate.

President Clinton flew into the area on April 22 to meet with rescue workers and evacuees, and to unveil a Midwest "Marshall plan," an aid package to spur rebuilding.

Damage estimates top $1 billion in what North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer calls "the worst single disaster in the history" of the state.

While the most urgent task is to care for the evacuees, there's already a chorus of calls for new measures to prevent future deluges along the Red. It is part of a growing national debate over how best to mitigate damage from recurring floods on myriad Midwestern rivers, from the Mississippi to the Ohio. The arguments, often framed by environmentalists on one side and farmers on the other, focus on whether agricultural uses of the nearby land exacerbate or reduce flooding.

The Red is an example of all that is wrong with existing flood-control programs, says Scott Faber of American Rivers, a national environmental group based in Washington. "This river is already damaged by hundreds of dams and many water diversions," he says. "Millions of acres of wetlands, prairies, and woodlands ... have been converted to cropland. Hundreds of miles of the river's basin in Minnesota have been channelized, aggravating spring flooding."

Even before the current flood, environmentalists were challenging plans by local watershed agencies to build 33 large earthen dams to expand the flood-control system in the Minnesota portion of the Red's basin. They would be added to 270 dams that already span the Red's tributaries in Minnesota, creating impoundments that store flood waters.

Thirty-one of the existing dams were built by watershed agencies that together make up the Red River Watershed District Board, an umbrella agency that guides water-resource planning in northwestern Minnesota. Its executive director, Don Ogaard, contends that the existing dams have substantially reduced flooding along the streams they impound.

Watershed districts, he says "regulate the amount of water coming out of the highlands to reduce that to the amount the downstream channels can handle." The channels, which are narrow and shallow, are those of the Red and its tributaries. But Mr. Ogaard says that they cannot absorb the large rush of flood water that originates in the highlands, then surges onto the huge, flat expanse of farmland that was once an enormous, ancient lake bed.

THE efficiency of the dams is challenged by Don Arnosti, the Minnesota director of the National Audubon Society.

"Those dams are having virtually no effect on reducing downstream flooding," he says. "And the draining of wetlands ... has exacerbated flooding."

As an alternative to more big dams, environmentalists propose a plethora of flood-control measures. They include restoring wetlands that would act as sponges for melting snow and rain, and paying farmers to stop planting crops in low-lying areas. Those areas might then be converted to permanent vegetation, including fast-growing hybrid trees that could be harvested for fuel.

Based on preliminary estimates, the 33 dams proposed by the local watershed agencies would cost more than $28 million. Most of the money would come from property-tax assessments on residents in northwestern Minnesota who presumably would benefit from the flood-control projects. Some of the dams also would require state funds but little, if any, federal money.

Although most of the dams have been on the drawing boards for years, construction has been blocked since early 1993, when the US Army Corps of Engineers imposed an unusual moratorium on the projects. The Corps, citing requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, said it would not consider issuing permits for the dams until after it had studied their potential cumulative effects on the environment.

The moratorium was lifted last September, after the study was jointly completed by the Corps and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which also must issue permits for the dams.

Although environmentalists quibble with some of the study's conclusions, they are citing one finding: that existing flood-control dams have had little effect on flooding in the Red River itself, but they have benefited some landowners below the dams.

The watershed agencies dispute the study's conclusions, and have sued Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources to try to gain approval for construction of the 33 proposed dams.

Environmentalists and watershed agencies are considering a proposal that they meet to settle the dispute through mediation.

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