Statewide: February 10, 2011 Archive
Posted at 6:00 AM on February 10, 2011
by Dan Gunderson
Filed under: Flooding
The business of flooding was on display in Fargo Wednesday. One vendor promised their device will fill sandbags 500 percent faster. Another, the Pro-Bagger claims it "nearly eliminates the back aches and drudgery" of sandbagging.
The Flood Fair has become an annual event in Fargo as floods become a yearly event.
It's likely to cost tens of millions of dollars to fight floods this year across the region. Most of the money is expected to be spent on sandbags and heavy equipment to build earthen levees. Those are still the most economical reliable emergency flood protection in most cases.
But some new tools have caught on. People I talked with are looking for items that will allow them to save time, something that's critical when the water is rising.
The Hesco Concertainer was originally designed to be used in war zones to quickly build blast walls to protect soldiers. It can be quickly set up and filled with sand using a loader.
But is also found a use as a flood fighting tool during Hurricane Katrina.
Fargo used several miles of the barriers in 2009 when city officials were scrambling to find flood barriers they could deploy more quickly than sandbags.
These units can't replace sandbags, because engineers say they only work well on a flat surface, and that rules out most backyards along rivers.
But they are one of the newer flood-fighting tools that have caught on. Manitoba ordered about 25 miles of the 15 foot long units this year. Many communities in Minnesota and North Dakota will also likely deploy them this year.
Also on display were the basics. Emergency generators to run pumps if the power goes out. Big racks of emergency lights so levee construction can continue around the clock. Massive pumps to move water, and tractor trailers used to haul clay for building levees.
Another new device that saw limited use in Fargo-Moorhead the past couple of years is a system of huge plastic tubes that are filled with water to create a dam three or four feet high and hundreds of feet long. They can be set up quickly but can be costly. Still, they could catch on with homeowners looking for an easier way to fight floods than stacking thousands of 30 pound sandbags.
Millions of sandbags could be used across the region this year. One supplier says he doubts there will be any shortages, but they could get more expensive closer to the flood event. It seems the bags imported from Asia are cheaper than bags made in the United States. But it takes several weeks for a shipment of bags to come across the ocean on a container ship. So people who don't order early might end up paying more.
By Stephanie Hemphill
The Minnesota House could act today on a bill requiring state agencies to simplify their environmental reviews of development projects, making it easier for industry to obtain permits.
Gov. Mark Dayton issued an executive order last month, directing state agencies to speed up environmental review. But some legislators are considering a bill that would do more than set goals for a quicker process.
It would allow companies proposing a project to conduct their own environmental studies. And it would bump appeals of agency decisions up to the appeals court, rather than the more local district courts.
The state office of Management and Budget analyzed a companion Senate bill, and found it could actually slow down reviews, because it requires periodic reports to the Legislature.
The House may also take up a bill removing Minnesota's ban on new nuclear power plants -- which has already passed in the Senate.
Reporter Stephanie Hemphill covers the environment for MPR News.
I reported the other day on some big changes with Lake County's fiber-to-the-premises broadband project.
You may recall Lake County has received a $10 million grant and a $56.4 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service to expand fiber optic service in the region. The money is coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Lake County is required to come up with another $3.5 million, making the total project a $70 million dollar venture.
We learned that Lake County is looking for a project manager, after county commissioners voted to end management negotiations with National Public Broadband; a St. Paul-based consultant that helped get the project planned and funded to this point.
The project is supposed to bring high speed internet, television, telephone and other services to everyone in Lake County who wants it, and to include parts of nearby eastern St. Louis County. It is designed to create redundant connections which would keep the network working even were there an unfortunate line cut somewhere.
But it's not something the people at the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota like to see. They contacted me after my last report, offering a letter they're sending to U.S. Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Freedom Foundation of Minnesota Vice President Jonathan Blake writes Walden of his concerns that, as Lake County has multiple private companies already providing similar services, the project represents government competing with the private sector.
Blake says taxpayers are at risk, as demonstrated by the USDA's Rural Utilities Service insistence that Lake County come up with their match. (Lake County commissioners did approve money for the project at in this week's meeting.)
Freedom Foundation officials think the project lacks oversight and accountability, as demonstrated by dismissal of both National Public Broadband and a construction contractor.
They also say the project fails to deliver on promises of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act because that it creates a total of 42 permanent jobs, while a "vast majority of residents and businesses in the project's service area already have broadband services available to them."
The Freedom Foundation of Minnesota is interested in limited government, and sees this project as an unnecessary expansion of government that hurts local business.
I've heard similar concerns from one of the area providers, Two Harbors-based Cooperative Light and Power, which provides high speed internet through its LakeNet Communications division.
But the fact is no one was bringing high-speed Internet to every resident of this rather large and sparsely populated county.
Instead, providers focused on the population centers, including the cities of Two Harbors and Silver Bay. If you lived in the woods some distance off Highway 1, you'd have little chance of ever getting a high-speed connection.
Now, I can't say whether a $70 million project is good government spending or not. And it remains to be seen how many people living in the woods are even interested in paying for a high-speed connection. Payback on that big government loan is supposed to come from user fees.
But we do rely on government for infrastructure like roads, and it's a government surtax, the Universal Connectivity Fee, that for years has paid for remote telephone infrastructure.
As much as a slam-dunk as this project may appear, it's fair to note that there's a camp that's philosophically opposed to this kind of spending; and you can count the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota among them.