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Fargo, Moorhead must bridge river to control flood

FARGO - Fargo and Moorhead have put aside their differences to cooperate on a joint dispatch center, SWAT team and mutual chamber of commerce.

Now the sister cities face a significant challenge of their leaders' ability to get along with their neighbors: agreeing on flood-control measures.

Fargo's Southside Flood Control Project looms as the first test in taming the Red River that divides them.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland wants a joint meeting of the Moorhead City Council and the Fargo City Commission once both cities have finished cleaning up after the spring flood, likely in May or June.

"You can't have trust built up from reading minutes," he said. "We just haven't had to do anything together."

An early effort at building political bridges, a meeting last fall between officials from both cities, rankled some Moorhead officials.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker spoke briefly at the meeting on the $161 million Southside Flood Control Project, but left soon after, and no Fargo city commissioners attended.

"It wasn't helpful," Voxland said, though adding that it is critical for the two cities to work together. "It's got to be a joint effort."

Mark Hintermeyer, a Moorhead City Council member, said the two cities must find ways to come together for their mutual benefit.

"We have some complex issues between Fargo and Moorhead," he said. He noted that most of residential Moorhead was threatened by the flood, underscoring the need for better permanent protection.

"This is a serious situation for both cities," Hintermeyer said.

For his part, Walaker said the city of Fargo has conducted many meetings to explain the flood-control project and to address the concerns of neighboring communities.

"We've done everything possible to try to answer these things," the mayor said.

Moorhead, because of its higher elevation, previously was not as concerned about flood-control measures, Walaker said, an attitude that apparently changed following the Red River's March 28 crest of 40.82 feet, which prompted large evacuations in Moorhead.

"Moorhead, being a little higher than Fargo, understands that they, too, are in harm's way," Walaker said.

The Southside Flood Control Project is designed to protect areas of south Fargo from overland flooding without raising levels of the Red River.

In fact, studies suggest the project actually would benefit certain areas of south Moorhead or south of Moorhead, Voxland said. Still, he'd like to see the results once data from this spring's historic flood are applied to the computer model.

Even if differences must be worked out between the two cities for a shared vision of flood control, Walaker and Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said technical staff for the city of Moorhead have a detailed understanding of Fargo's proposal.

"The need is certainly there," Walaker said. "There's no question about that."

Although the meeting last fall rankled some council members, Voxland said it was nonetheless helpful.

"I think the meeting itself was good," he said. "We got a lot of good information out of it."

One point of agreement among the two cities: Effective flood control must go beyond merely building levees to protect urban areas.

"It can't be just building higher flood walls," Voxland said.

The cities can't keep building emergency dikes, Zavoral said. This spring's flood came much faster than the 1997 flood. The river rose 23 feet in seven days before cresting, he said, jumping more than 5 feet for several days.

"If we didn't have that two weeks of cold weather, it would have been a 500-year flood," Zavoral said, referring to predictions the crest could have been as high as 43 feet.

For both cities, he said, "South of I-94 is the most critical need on both sides of the river," and therefore the logical first step toward a more comprehensive, metrowide flood-control plan.

Fargo, which has been working on the Southside Flood Control Project for eight or nine years, hopes the project will move from the drawing board to field work in less than two years.

"We think we will be throwing dirt hopefully by late 2010 or early 2011," Zavoral said.