After decades of spending, river cities ready and waiting for spring assault

Tim Mahoney walks to the river’s edge, knowing the force that may soon be unleashed.

“You can feel the power of the river when it starts to move,” said the Fargo mayor, who has hoisted sandbags with thousands of others who’ve fended off a swollen Red River during overwhelming spring meltdowns.

Like others who live in towns lining Minnesota waterways — from the Red River Valley in the north to the Mississippi River basin in the south — Mahoney is bracing for a rush of rising water.

But unlike the historic flood fights of 1997 and 2009, when rivers overflowed and swamped buildings and neighborhoods in many towns, this spring’s experience should be less daunting.

For two decades, cities weary of the labor and money spent battling high waters and cleaning up destruction left behind have invested millions of dollars to move houses off riverbanks, build levees, install pumps and storm sewer gates, raise roads, bridges and buildings and, in some cases, divert water.

“The flood fight is vastly different now,” said Bob Zimmerman, city engineer in Moorhead, a stone’s throw across the Red from Fargo.

For one thing, the National Weather Service can better forecast floods, said Patrick Lynch, a flood plain hydrologist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. And river towns are better prepared to handle them when they do happen, he said.

“Since 2009, the state alone has invested more than $300 million in grants to local governments for flood mitigation. And in the 20 years before that, it allocated about $220 million,” said Lynch, who co-authored the latest annual report on flood mitigation grants.

That money has leveraged enough state, local and federal funds to complete more than $1 billion in flood mitigation efforts across the state, according to the DNR’s 2018 report.

So much work has been completed to protect historically vulnerable cities like Montevideo, Austin, Roseau, Crookston, Moorhead and East Grand Forks, Lynch said, that “there’s not a whole lot” more to be done.

He cautioned, however, that any flooding could expose more that needs to be addressed. That’s increasingly likely, he said, because climate change has made storms more frequent and more intense, taking a toll on infrastructure. Also, federal standards for mitigation projects evolve, which could put some existing projects out of compliance.

As winter loosens its grip, forecasters monitoring conditions say there’s a higher-than-usual chance of moderate to major flooding this spring. With record snowfall in February and a frigid winter, most of Minnesota was blanketed by a deep snowpack at the start of March.

Compounding the flood threat is that the soil was saturated before it froze. A deep frost may keep it impervious for a while, forcing melting snow to run off rather than soak in.

As a result, local officials across the state are huddling over flood-fighting plans, checking the integrity of their levees and readying sandbagging efforts. It’s still unclear how quickly temperatures will rise and how fast the snow will melt. But compared to years past, city officials say they’re better prepared for what may come.

In Fargo, the frozen Red River looks benign. “It’s pretty peaceful right now,” Mahoney said. But forecasters are predicting it could rise to 38 feet — 20 feet above flood stage, Mahoney said. He expects volunteers will soon begin filling about a half-million sandbags.

But that’s far less than 2009, when thousands of volunteers met up at the Fargodome and filled 7.5 million sandbags to hold back the Red, which rose to a record 40.8 feet.

Since then, the city has spent $438 million to, among other things, raise roads, add and update pumps, build clay dikes and concrete walls and buy out more than 200 homes that stood in the river’s way when it overflowed.

Persuading people to leave their homes and neighborhoods is almost always emotional, and sometimes a hard sell.

“One gentleman said, ‘You can buy my home but then I would have to leave my wife in the house because she’s not going anywhere,’ ” Mahoney recalled.

But “flood fatigue” among residents in Fargo and cities such as Granite Falls, where the Minnesota River winds through town, is enough to spark change.

In 1997, when the Minnesota rose 11 feet above flood stage, Granite Falls residents figured it wouldn’t happen again, said Mayor Dave Smiglewski. But four years later, and less than a year after a tornado hit town, a rising river threatened again.

“The town became disaster weary,” Smiglewski said. Granite Falls has since spent about $40 million to reduce its flood risks, including buying out more than four dozen homes, moving about 10 businesses, raising a pedestrian bridge over the river and relocating its City Hall.

So much had been moved out of harm’s way that when high water hit again in 2011, “we didn’t fill a single sandbag,” Smiglewski said.

In New Ulm, where the Cottonwood and Minnesota rivers meet, the Minnesota rose to a record 811 feet above sea level in 1997. Now, a levee protects the city to a level of 814 feet and sandbags can be added, if necessary, to 3 feet above that.

“If we get the levels we got in ’97, it’s going to look very different here,” said Dave Borchert, New Ulm’s police chief and emergency management director. “It’s not going to look like ’97, just because of the flood mitigation efforts here, and the [emergency management] training.”

Improvements in predicting floods and monitoring river levels — including far more river gauges — have also helped, Borchert said.

“Even 10 years ago we didn’t have that,” Borchert said. “That’s been huge.”

As the rivers rise, the city can take steps such as closing off bridge approaches and floodgates. While an inconvenience for residents, those moves preserve the bridges and protect against other damage.

Despite all the money spent to protect cities, communities stay vigilant. The science of predicting floods has gotten better, but it’s not exact, said Mark Koenig, chief of construction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul District.

“There’s no way to eliminate the hazards 100 percent, because there’s always a chance that something could go wrong,” said Koenig, who began fighting floods with the Corps in 1997.

In Winona, Public Works Director Keith Nelson looked at his desk piled high with flood information. Much of Minnesota’s snowmelt will end up in the Mississippi, which winds alongside his town. It’s imperative that a 10.5-mile sand levee and half-mile concrete levee hold back the fast-moving water as it rises, he said.

“When you stand on top of the levee, the Mississippi is just flying by,” Nelson said. “It’s 40 feet deep, a mile and a half wide. It’s a monster. If we break here, it’s a wall of water. There’s no stopping it.”