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Red River Valley poised to get more state money

ST. PAUL -- Flood fighters from around Minnesota say they are ready to launch new measures to prevent future floods as soon as waters recede this spring.

That is, they are ready if the state lawmakers and Gov. Mark Dayton approve a $55 million public works bill two legislative committees considered Wednesday. No action was taken, but no representative or senator expressed opposition.

"I always tried to have enough state money that nothing is held up," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said.

Langseth is a long-time promoter of flood-prevention funding in northwest Minnesota's Red River Valley and elsewhere. Several cities -- such as Moorhead, Roseau and Breckenridge -- are almost done with their major flood-prevention work, he said.

"The reason for this is to take another giant step to protect those communities in the Red River Valley," Langseth said of approving the flooding prevention money.

Ron Harnack of the Red River Watershed Management Board said that if this year's appropriation is approved, and a like amount next year, most of the work will be done.

"That would complete protection of all of our communities that have flood risks in our area," he said.

While most legislative attention has focused on Northwest Minnesota needs, other communities are included in the bills, including places as varied as Afton and Newport in the eastern Twin Cities and Granite Falls and New Ulm in southwestern Minnesota.

Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski said his community faces a very different situation than the flat Red River Valley. The Minnesota River that runs through his city "is very confined," the mayor said.

Smiglewski said Granite City needs another $5 million to $6 million to finish work such as flood-proofing buildings and utility structures.

Such measures "save money down the road," the mayor said.

Money being sought would be spent for both building structures such as dikes to protect communities and to build water-storage areas to slow down the water flow into rivers. In most cases, dikes and other structures would be built to protect communities three feet above the flood level expected every 100 years.

In a separate action, lawmakers later this spring are expected to consider funding recovery costs from this year's expected extensive flooding.

Most of the $55 million in public works funding could be spent yet this year, Harnack said, because projects already have preliminary work done. In most cases, construction could begin as soon as water from this spring's floods recede.

"The $55 million in the bill is the absolute minimum," he said.

Greg Anderson of Oakport Township, just north of Moorhead, said his area needs $8.7 million to finish its flood protection work, which is included in the bill.

"We have the contractors ready to go," he said. "We just need the money."

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland, acknowledging that much of Minnesota is expecting floods, said the U.S. Corps of Engineers tells him that the area is beginning a 60-year wet cycle.

In asking for money, the mayor told legislators that annual sandbagging "is a tremendous waste of resources" if other measures can prevent floods.

Moorhead has spent $34 million and needs another $16.5 million to battle floods, Voxland said.

Three miles of dikes have been built in Moorhead, Voxland said, with another seven needed.

Another mayor summarized his experience that began in 2002.

"We got flooded bad," Roseau Mayor Jeff Pelowski said. "We've rebuilt."

For Roseau, the only state funding still needed is to finish a canal to divert flood water around the city. Roseau flood prevent efforts have cost nearly $40 million.

John Finney of the Red River Watershed Management Board said a major part of the flood-prevention effort is to hold water back before it can reach the river. The organization's goal is to reduce flood waters by 20 percent, said Finney, who traveled to St. Paul from near the North Dakota and Canadian border.

Harnack said that effort to hold back water will require another 10 years to 15 years with $10 million to $12 million annual appropriations.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.