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March 29, 2011

Looking Ahead: Watershed Management

Filed under: History, Nature/Enviroment — Alison Aten @ 12:09 pm

Red River Rising Cover

Guest blog post by Ashley Shelby, author of Red River Rising: The Anatomy of a Flood and the Survival of an American City

When it comes to the work of flood prevention, management, and mitigation, we don’t all speak the same language. Where a city engineer sees sluice gates, a homeowner sees a sump pump. Where a hydrologist sees—or doesn’t—a loop in a rating curve, a city emergency manager sees potential sandbagging capacity. But over the last fifteen years, and years of severe to catastrophic floods in the Upper Midwest’s river valleys, it has become critical that we share a common parlance when it comes to the decisions we make about how to live with rivers and other bodies of water.

For too long, we have remained complacent tenants of floodplains and watersheds. Human beings are drawn to bodies of water, often at their own peril. That’s why we see people continue to build homes on floodplains, on sandy barrier islands in the Gulf that are continually battered by hurricanes, on rocky cliffs on the West Coast that are washed away in mudslides. It’s a risk we take, and yet, for so many people—so many communities—surprise and shock are the responses when these disasters take place, even though these “disasters” are actually natural occurrences. In fact, they are only disasters because they occur at a place of human habitation. The truth is, disasters are largely social products.

In Grand Forks, North Dakota, in 1997, people had lived on the Red for generations. It’s typically a mild-mannered stream-like river that cuts a narrow channel, flows north, and is generally sluggish. It climbs no grand inclines, except the ancient shores of glacial Lake Agassiz. However, it is prone to flood almost every year because of that very flatness. There just isn’t anywhere for excess water to go.


In the decades preceding 1997, flooding had been kept in check. Yes, there had been a catastrophic flood in 1897 and a few close calls through the years, but 1997 was shaping up to be a do-able flood season. The crest would be high, but the hardy folks of Grand Forks had been through this many times before. Sandbag until you collapse, turn on your sump pump, and hunker down.

But the advance of time and technology has made us arguably overly reliant on technology and perhaps not as in tune with the environment, the watershed, and the way rivers historically behave—and, perhaps more important, the chance every year that they will do something totally unexpected. While the hydrologists at the National River Forecast Center in Chanhassen were unable to see a strange loop in the rating curve detailing flow and velocity of the Red at East Grand Forks (in fact, it is patently impossible to see a loop in a rating curve until after the event), the waters of the Red poured into downtown Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the face—and the soul—of both communities were changed forever. Floodplains were cleared, homes razed, dikes built, floodwalls raised, and while these efforts were necessary, they caused great heartache for the residents of Grand Forks.

Fargo recently had to make some tough decisions as well; it cleared some of its floodplain of homes in order to enlarge that plain and ensure that flooding of the kind that took place last year doesn’t have quite the same human impact it did. That wasn’t an easy decision, I am certain, and the city council probably got an earful, just as the Grand Forks city council did.

People may understand, logically, that keeping their home on a floodplain, near a river that regularly floods, doesn’t make sense. But when that home has been their castle for decades, when they have—as many in Grand Forks maintained—survived all floods with nothing more than a wet basement, these decisions are very difficult to swallow, especially when they are being made for you.

It’s important to try to avoid such scenarios, if at all possible, and that’s where watershed management and pre-flood mitigation comes into play. What’s being done in the Lac Qui Parle-Yellow Bank Watershed, for example, is providing critical flood prevention and mitigation to the communities on that part of the Minnesota River: the Lazarus Creek Dam, the Fish Lake Outlet Repair, stream bank stabilization projects, the levee on the West Branch. The Hansonville 34 new dam was the result of the district working with a single landowner to construct a dam for flood retention by doing some cost sharing. Efforts like this save millions upon millions of dollars in flood damage and also put these issues in front of the community at large, making flood mitigation and prevention a community-wide effort. Perhaps more important, they give citizens the feeling that they can become part of the dialogue and have some say in the way their town fights floods.

Watershed management and flood mitigation is something that just about everyone in a community has an opinion on, and making this process perhaps even more complicated is that many of these decisions don’t come in the aftermath of a major flood, when the “evidence” is pooling around your boots. Often preventative measures cause at least as much angst, if not a little more, because there is no compelling, concrete reason to make changes to, say, farming practices or existing flood prevention infrastructure while the major flood is still hypothetical. (In rural areas, for example, the biggest bone of contention often turns out to be the way farmers tend their land and what effect those practices have on the watershed.)

The National Weather Service released its first flood outlook for the Red River Valley in late January, and it told flood watchers that there was a 50 percent chance the Red at East Grand Forks will rise to fifty feet or higher this spring. Only twice before in its recorded history has it done that: in 1897, when it hit 50.2 feet, and in 1997, when it rose to the apocalyptic 54.35 feet. It may be a spring to watch the way decisions made in the midst of catastrophe and loss can prevent catastrophe and loss from happening again.

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