Further River Setbacks Needed

“There is no silver bullet for comprehensive water management, but there may be silver buckshot”.  This is a quote often used by Lance Yohe of the Red River Basin Commission and others.  It helps make the point that multiple components are needed for comprehensive basin wide water management.

Here are a couple of recent articles and interviews with some of my perspectives on this important subject:

20% flow reduction goal on Red through upstream tributary retention  http://renewnd.areavoices.com/2010/11/21/better-land-use-practices-can-help-protect-fargo/

Here’s an interview with Joel Heitkamp on KFGO:  http://www.kfgo.com/uploads/04192011MikeWilliams_Setbacks.mp3
Published April 23, 2011, 12:00 AM 

Widen river setbacks in Fargo

With all the flood fighting and home buyouts we’ve done these past years, why risk allowing expensive new houses too close to any river?By: Mike Williams, INFORUM

It’s obvious the increasing frequency and severity of flooding throughout the area requires proactive measures to change what we can now to reduce further costs in the future.

Urban or rural, we all need to recognize we need to do more to better work together toward more comprehensive water management throughout the entire basin.  As Lance Yohe of the Red River Basin Commission says: “There is no silver bullet for comprehensive water management, but there may be silver buckshot”.

While we need a diversion as one component for comprehensive, long-term water management, we’ve been told construction for any diversion will not even begin for eight to 10 years. While diversion studies continue, and the threat of the Sheyenne’s unprecedented flows and erosion risk continue to rise with Devils Lake without an adequate outlet, we need to focus on what Fargo can do now to help ourselves with better land use and water management decisions.

Kudos to Cass County for adopting a 450-foot watercourse setback ordinance in 2006. I brought a 450-foot river setback item to the Fargo Commission in September, and it was approved 5-0 to forward for staff review. Adopting a 450-foot river setback ordinance would help protect our city so we can grow in a safer and more secure manner as well as give developers more direction and consistency.

On April 6, the ordinance passed first reading 5-0. On April 18, the Fargo City Commission had a second reading for the 450-foot setback from rivers ordinance. I proposed an amendment to the ordinance that clarifies that existing homes and businesses that are already within 450 feet of the center of a river will be able to continue to maintain and make improvements as long as the new project is no closer to the river. This ordinance would not prohibit construction of floodwalls and/or levees to protect existing properties outside the current floodplain and with adequate soil stability.

The 450-foot river setback ordinance has not yet passed final reading and is being worked on. Fargo currently has a moratorium on buildings on riverside lots, and that should be continued until this ordinance is finalized.

Even with the Sheyenne Diversion, the Sheyenne River could still flood out of its perched banks if flows exceed capacity. With all the flood fighting and home buyouts we’ve done these past years, why risk allowing expensive new houses too close to any river? I don’t think it would be in anyone’s best interest to let anyone build a home or business within 100 feet of the edge of any river when Fargo and Cass County have spent tens of millions buying out homes that are not even as close as that.

Many of the homes the city and county have bought out are within 450 feet of a river. This has cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. It would be much less expensive to buy out a few undeveloped, platted lots than allowing new development too close and later having to buy out a lot with a new building on it.

Backing away from rivers and not allowing new homes or businesses within 450 feet of rivers is just one of the many ways we can help ourselves in Fargo right now.

Along with requiring further river setbacks for new homes or businesses:

  • We need to protect Fargo to a higher permanent level to reduce or eliminate sandbagging
  • Develop more strategic land use that targets and encourages development and redevelopment in areas with infrastructure already in place nearer the city’s core.
  • We should also focus on working with our neighbors and water boards to better manage urban and rural drainage and groups like the Red River Retention Authority throughout the basin on water management to achieve a 20 percent flow reduction in the main stem Red River.

We need to work together on strategic basin wide water management as well as we do fighting these more frequent and severe floods year after year.  If you would like to see Fargo adopt a 450′ river setback before any new homes are allowed to build as close as 100′ from a river, now is the time to speak up.