Managing a river of extremesby Bob Reha, Minnesota Public Radio
City officials in Fargo, North Dakota are paying close attention to the weather. The city is dependent on the Red River of the North for all of its water. The situation has prompted some precautionary actions to conserve. So far the moves have prevented a crisis, but managing water supplies is a complex and dynamic business.
Moorhead, Minn. — A few months ago, Fargo area residents were fighting a flood. High water threatened bridges, sandbags protecting homes were a common sight.
As the Red River reached a crest there was a common thought; please don't let it rain.
Just four months later area residents are begging for rain to boost the river's water levels.
When it comes to water, life in the Red River valley can seem all about extremes.
For years officials have tried to find a way to store the spring flood waters. Tim Bertschi is with the Army Corps of Engineers, his job is to manage the river so Fargo doesn't go dry.
The traditional approach to flood control is to build dams and reservoirs on a river. This not only controls floods it holds water in reserve for dry times. But Bertschi says that approach isn't feasible in the Red River Valley.
"The topography here makes it very difficult, the Red River; it's so flat out in the valley that the river only drops about a half a foot per mile," says Bertschi. "So in order to get a large reservoir of useful water it would take thousands and thousands of acres of farmland out of production."
Managing the Red River is a unique challenge because the river is fed by three sources. If the Red River is going to have enough water to meet downstream demand, Bertschi has to make sure the sources feeding the river have water.
There are two ways to do that, hope you get enough rain or find some way to store it. Since reservoirs on the Red River aren't feasible, water managers needed another way.
That takes us to Lake Orwell located 50 miles southeast of Fargo, near Fergus Falls. Tim Bertschi says this lake is a good example of the balancing act it takes to manage the river.
Lake Orwell stores water from the lake country of north central Minnesota. When released, the water will flow into to the Otter Tail River, a tributary of the Red River. Bertschi says Lake Orwell is nearly surrounded by a wildlife refuge which allows it to hold water with little affect on area residents.
"It's fortunate that we don't have cabins, we don't have human issues around that lake so we can do that without impacting other folks," says Berschi. "So we're storing about four extra feet of water in the reservoir."
Bertschi says the extra four feet of water in Lake Orwell is roughly a 30-day supply for Fargo. Two other lakes that feed the Red River also have good levels of water.
Bertschi says right now about 2,100 gallons a second are flowing thru the Red River in Fargo. That's about normal for this time of year. The city has enough water to meet daily needs.
Neighboring Moorhead also draws water from the river, but Moorhead has a second source of water, a series of deep wells, tapped into a local aquifer.
The Fargo area has been lucky; in the past two weeks nearly two inches of rain have fallen here. Mayor Dennis Walaker jokes, if the recent showers have done nothing else they have reminded folks it can still rain.
Walaker says the city isn't facing a crisis but conservation is necessary.
"We have several water towers on the north side and we have an underground storage tank at the water plant so we have six, seven million gallons when everything is full," says Walaker. "We use on an average ten to 12 million gallons a day per year, but we have periods now with the lawn watering in the summer time when we go well over 20 million gallons a day."
Walaker says the city is limiting water for outdoor uses, like watering lawns and gardens or washing your car. They use an odd-even approach, residents with even-numbered addresses can water on even-numbered days. So far the city is in no danger of running out of water.
Walaker says despite the conservation efforts the city is still dependent on rain to feed the river and its tributaries. He says if the river were to stop flowing or go dry, extreme measures would be necessary. No outdoor water use would be allowed, rationing would take place.
Mayor Walaker isn't convinced this summer is the start of a prolonged drought. However he realizes the city does need a long term solution to meet its water demands.
He believes the answer is a water project that will pump Missouri River water from western North Dakota to Fargo. Opponents of the project say it's a pipe dream, but Walker says the state's congressional delegation is moving the project slowly towards reality.
- All Things Considered, 08/04/2006, 5:20 p.m.