Flood outlook ‘manageable’ so far

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

There’s plenty of winter left to deliver surprises – but, for now, the city’s flood fortifications seem more than equal to handling the Red River.

City Engineer Bob Zimmerman told the City Council Monday that, given the first forecast issued by the National Weather Service, “Given what we know now, the outlook is all very manageable where we have permanent infrastructure installed.”

That means that only a fraction of the sandbags and clay dikes needed to protect the city in the record-breaking flood of 2009 will be needed, even if 2020 reaches the same level of 40.6 feet – a possibility the weather service gives a 5% chance of occurring. The NWS estimates issued Thursday, Jan. 23, suggest at least minor flooding is certain, with a 95% chance of the river reaching moderate flood stage of 27.6′ ; even odds of 35.9′; a 10% chance of 39.6′; and 5% likelihood of 40.6′. That would exceed the 1997 height of 39.72′ and come close  to the 2009 record of 40.84′.

Zimmerman explained that Moorhead’s permanent levees are designed to handle a 41-foot flood plus three more feet of free-board he called “our insurance zone.” Thanks to home buy-outs and construction of the levee, fewer than 55,000 sandbags and less that one mile of temporary clay diking would be needed at the maximum projected crest – compared with 2,850,000 bags and 10.5 miles of diking prior to 2012, when the city embarked on its $110 million flood protection program. He noted the earlier numbers predate the Oakport annexation. Work is slated to begin on the last Oakport area this year along 40th Avenue North; the city has already acquired the property needed for that segment of levees. One other area in the River Point area in south Moorhead will be the only area remaining after this summer; negotiations are still going on to acquire one final property in that area.

The council reaffirmed a resolution from 2013 authorizing the city to take emergency measures if needed. That includes the provision that the city may consider purchasing and delivering empty sandbags and loose sand to riverfront property owners who have refused property buy-outs when a NWS deterministic forecast has been issued that predicts a crest of 42.5 feet or greater.

Wastewater upgrades

The city engineer also presented plans for upgrading Moorhead’s wastewater treatment facility, with the council approving financial measures, including seeking loan funds from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and issuing bids for the work. Total cost is estimated to exceed $19 million. Much of the work will be complete by the end of 2021. The largest element – replacement of the 70-year-old brick sewers that run under downtown and serve about half of the city directly or indirectly – will continue over several more years.

The wastewater facility is due to be fitted with a new fabric cover for the digester, which captures methane from anaerobic decay of waste solids. The methane is then burned to generate heat for the plant, saving $200,000 per year in natural gas costs.

Two more replacements will improve the capture of “undesirable materials” from the sewer flow. “When a product says it’s flushable, don’t believe it. It really isn’t,” Zimmerman commented. “The only product that should be flushed is toilet paper.” The water department also plans to add a building to store its emergency equipment. The former site was razed when the Cullen Hockey Center was expanded. Sanitary Lift Station #14, one of the largest in the city, will be relocated farther from the Regal Estates mobile home park.

The old brick sewers present the most urgent challenge. “We know from experience that, when a break occurs, the bricks open up just like a zipper,” the engineer said. The department plans to have them fitted with cured-in-place piping, a lower-cost lining that does not require whole streets to be dug up; instead, workers can access the lines through manholes to pull the custom-fabricated linings into place.

City sales tax?

The council took the first step of many to implement a city sales tax – seeking the Minnesota Legislature’s approval to put such a tax on the ballot in the next general election.

The sales tax idea came up at a recent council workshop. A half-cent tax would generate $75.5 million over the next 25 years, according to City Manager Chris Volkers. State law permits the revenue to be applied to projects of “regional impact,” such as five cited in Community Affairs Director Lisa Bode: a regional community and aquatics center, regional library and city hall complex; regional transportation improvements; regional inclusive playground; or regional trails.

Bode stressed that they were not voting directly on a sales tax. “There are many steps between here and there. This is just the first,” she stressed. Legislative approval would enable the council to put a specific tax referendum on the ballot  by 2022.

Dog park shifts

Parks Director Holly Heitkamp asked the council to amend it former decision to give the green light to a dog park proposed for River Point in the southwest corner of the city. She reported that the formerly approved location at the midpoint of the peninsula cannot be used. The site is owned by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which bought out homes there after the flood of 1997. Federal regulations prohibit any permanent structures from being rebuilt on that land, including fencing and service buildings. Said Heitkamp, “That land can basically be used for nothing.”

Instead, she proposed, and the council approved, moving the park further to the west, originally the third option presented for approval. It was rejected at that time because the area floods regularly and running water is not accessible. “The second option” (at the midpoint of the peninsula) “would be better, but this is the hand we’re dealt,” she told them. The change, she pointed out, does have potential benefits because it places the park farther from neighboring homes and will cost less to build.

As it’s now envisioned, the dog park will be more of a natural park, possibly with open areas as well as fenced spaces for smaller dogs. “It will be similar to how some citizens are using it right now,” she said. “It won’t be as fancy as what we’d planned, but on the other hand, it will be much larger.” After initial fund-raising by Parks and Recreation, she said, Moorhead citizens will be invited to share their input on amenities they want to see there.

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