City council favors staying course on flood control

Despite the cost, a levee and flood wall system that will protect the city from the 2011 flood of record remains a priority for the Minot City Council.

After learning this week that reducing the initial build-out to 10,000 cubic feet per second of river flow only reduces the cost by less than 6 percent, many council members say scaling back isn’t worth it. They say the city simply needs to work harder to find the $543 million to fund a project that builds to the full 27,400 cfs right away.

In requesting the cost of a scaled-back project, the city asked that features remain to allow for eventual build-out to 27,400 cfs. A preliminary report on the cost savings discovered that little is gained because land acquisitions and structure foundations would not change.

The council’s Public Works and Safety Committee voted Wednesday to recommend the council not scale back but proceed with constructing a 27,400 cfs flood protection project.

Council member Kevin Connole said the city has to consider the cost of raising a 10,000 cfs levee if there is a flood emergency. The city may be money ahead by building to 27,400 from the start, he said.

“We are going to pay for it anyway. It’s whether you pay for it now or you pay for it down the road,” he said.

City staff could provide no definitive answer on the cost of building up the dikes in 2011, although that figures is in millions. Damage to streets from the trucks hauling materials is millions more.

“It’s deteriorated our streets so we are going to see additional costs down the road,” said Dan Jonasson, public works director.

Council member Blake Krabseth said the $30.7 million savings in scaling back could be an option if funding can’t be raised, but he suggested that the goal should be a 27,400 cfs project.

“We have to be able to protect ourselves to what happened last time,” Krabseth said. “Anything less than what happened, to the public, would probably be unsatisfactory.”

Krabseth and Connole were among public works committee members supporting Wednesday’s motion, made by council member Dave Lehner. Others on the committee are Jim Hatlelid, George Withus, Milt Miller and Scott Knudsvig. No one spoke against the motion.

The council’s Finance and Improvements Committee took no action on the engineers’ scaling report Tuesday, although some members indicated support for staying with the 27,400 cfs plan. Not all council members have committed to a decision yet, though.

Council member Mark Jantzer noted that the scaling report isn’t the last word.

“There’s more information to come to the topic,” he said, referring to studies on river management, Lake Darling and a flood project phasing report due in three weeks.

“If the council really wants to look at cost savings, we have to look at other options,” council member Dean Frantsvog said. “Given the costs involved, we have to look at all other alternatives. Funding is an issue.”

Heinz Munz, president of Eko Flood Systems in Jackson, Wyo., believes his company has the alternative Minot needs.

Munz, who visited Minot in October 2011, said the easiest and least expensive way to provide flood control is by raising Lake Darling. The company’s engineers also identified additional storage potential below the dam that could be obtained by negotiating use of the land during flood threats. Munz said the storage would only be needed in the unusual event of a major flood.

Eko engineers and installs flood walls. The company has 25 years of experience in Europe. Its U.S. projects include flood protection for the Nashville, Tenn., area.

Eko produced a schematic for Minot that showed its vision for what protection might look in the city. The plan is a combination of earthen levees, removable flood barriers and permanent flood walls, including some walls that could accommodate additional, removable flood barriers. Pedestrian and bike paths would be incorporated into the project.

The cost is roughly estimated at $320 million for the entire Souris River project. The cost assumes zero property buyouts.

Eko’s proposal has been well received by some Minot residents but has failed to gain traction with the city or its engineers.

City council members have concerns about how long the city might have to wait on changes at Lake Darling and whether it can afford to wait. Most council members prefer to build a protective levee system rather than rely on management and other measures that are outside of the city’s control.

Krabseth said upstream changes should be pursued, but he doesn’t have confidence that those changes will happen.

Council member Bob Miller favors building the 27,400 cfs system regardless of what happens with river management.

“We have to stay on top of that, but we have to do what is in our power to do. We control our own destiny here,” he said. “We are charged with the public safety, and we should provide the maximum flood protection for the valley.”

Tim Fay, an engineer with the North Dakota State Water Commission, said the state expects any changes in river management or at Lake Darling to complement, not replace, features of a proposed levee system in Minot.

The International Joint Commission and its International Souris River Board recently received a plan of study for the river basin that includes management and Lake Darling. Fay said any study will take a long time because of the scope and the number of interested parties involved.

“Raising Lake Darling is kind of a two-edged sword,” Fay said. “In 2011, we all learned about the shortfall of trying to control floods with storage.”

Changes at Lake Darling also must be compatible with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department operations and would require an environmental study.

Engineers are looking into adding controls to the Des Lacs River, which flows into the Souris River at Burlington. Devising flood-control structures is difficult because of the nature of the valley and the number of coulees that feed into it, Fay said.

“It’s not an easy fix,” he said.

Ultimately, the State Water Commission will support whatever plan is favored by the Souris River Joint Board, Fay said. The joint board, representing counties along the river, had requested the water commission take charge of designing a flood protection plan. The commission hired Barr Engineering, which has subcontracted assistance from Ackerman-Estvold Engineering and Management Consulting in Minot.

“We were asked to identify a project, and I think we identified a good one. I think we identified one that will give a high level of protection. But it is expensive,” Fay said.

Maurice Foley of Minot, a member of the State Water Commission, said the city council may be wise to pursue a 27,400 cfs project, given the small cost savings in scaling back. He said he also isn’t comfortable relying on changes at Lake Darling alone, given the dam’s failure to handle the 2011 flow.

David Ashley of Voltaire, chairman of the Souris River Joint Board, said the joint board continues to gather information from the rural areas to determine the best flood control plan for the entire basin, but it appears Minot is on the right track. He said a levee system of 27,400 cfs would allow for greater flexibility in managing the river.