As 2019 flood outlook worsens, Moorhead reviews sandbag policy

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

It’s been several years – and $110 million in flood-fighting infrastructure – since the Moorhead City Council has had to worry about protecting riverside homes in flood emergencies. But on Monday, with a darkening outlook for spring flooding, city engineer Bob Zimmerman updated city leaders on the policy that has been in place since 2013.
“Fall moisture was high. Streamflow is normal. Frost is deep. The snowpack is high, and so is snow water,” he told the group. “But none are yet extreme.” He added, though, that the late spring thaw favors a fast thaw cycle as well as more rain – and the risk of rain, even before this week’s “weather event,” is definitely up.
The probabilistic forecast – based on existing conditions and many years of data – gives a 50 percent chance of a flood crest of 34.9 feet; 25 percent chance of 36.6 feet; 10 percent risk of 38.1 feet; and 5 percent risk of 39.1 feet. By comparison, the record crest of 2009 was 40.8 feet. Zimmerman said it’s likely this year’s Red River level will rank somewhere in the top 10.
The city’s home buyouts, levees and infrastructure upgrades of the past eight years are designed to protect public and private property to a flood crest of 44 feet, he explained. Only 20 homes remain that would be at risk at a crest of 38 feet. Eleven of them belong to homeowners who have received, and rejected, multiple buyout offers. If the rest of the city were threatened, clay dikes would be built across the front of these properties.
The city council established an emergency measures policy in 2013 that clearly states the city will not take steps to protect these homes unless a crest of more than 42.5 feet is predicted. At that point, the policy states, “the city will consider purchasing and delivering empty sandbags and loose sand to riverfront neighborhoods and/or properties that require such measures for private property flood risk management.”
But nine of the homes at risk at 38 feet were outside the Moorhead limits when the policy was established. They are located the former Oakport Township, added to the city by annexation in 2015. While most of Oakport is protected by $36 million in mitigation efforts completed by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, the section between 40th Avenue and Wall Street is not. Moorhead has been focusing its efforts there in recent months, thanks to an additional $2 million grant received from the Minnesota DNR in November. But offers are still out on many properties and acquisitions of others are not complete.
The number of at-risk homes within the annexed area grows with higher crests: 31 of 52 vulnerable properties at a crest of 39 feet are in the former Oakport neighorhood, as well as 51 of 75 at risk at 40 feet. The engineering department estimates number of sandbags needed for just the Oakport residents at 16,500 at 38 feet; 81,500 at 39 feet; and 240,000 at 40 feet. (A quarter million bags were employed for the whole city in 2009.)
Several council members questioned him on how the policy would apply to homeowners who have not yet been offered buyouts or whose buyouts are not finalized. Zimmerman said that the 2013 policy remains in effect as stated unless the council takes action to amend it or add exceptions.
In other action, the council approved the sale of a parcel of land at 2604 Eighth Ave. N. to Commonwealth Development Corporation of Fond du Lac, Wis. The purchase clears another hurdle for construction of a 46-unit affordable housing development at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 28th Street North, just north of Regal Estates. The Commonwealth plan calls for one-, two-, three- and four-bedroom apartments with rents set for those earning no more than 30 or 50 percent of the county median income. In addition, ten are to be set aside with four earmarked for supportive housing for formerly homeless tenants and six for renters with disabilities.
Three-quarters of the purchase price of $410,000 will be used for the city’s property improvement program; the balance will support economic development efforts.
Council members also unanimously approved an amendment to the Fargo Diversion’s project partnership agreement – reflecting the federal government’s commitment of an additional $300 million, raising its share from $450 million to $750 million.
“What’s the down side to this?” council member Steve Gehrtz asked city attorney John Shockley.
Shockley’s reply: “There isn’t one.” The council’s approval was unanimous.

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