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Learn from Duff
Jul 24, 2009

For decades, the residents of Fargo have known that “Duff’s Ditch” has spared Winnipeg from numerous floods, saving  billions of dollars in damages and the evacuation of tens of thousands of citizens. And for decades, engineers and politicians south of the border have debated the merits of replicating the benefits derived from the Red River Floodway. But instead of seriously considering a floodway option, they have each flood year been forced to hastily construct  dikes on top of existing dike systems and surround threatened properties with sand bags to keep floodwaters at bay.

During the flood of 1950, Winnipeg residents came to realize sand bags and dikes were of limited value as barriers to  floodwaters.

“Levees, even dams, can break ... and dikes can be overtopped,” said Lance Yoke, the executive director of the Red River Basin Commission in a recent Daily Commercial News report.

This year Fargo experienced a particularly nasty flood. “In 1997, I thought it was going to be the benchmark for the future,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told ABC News reporter Eric Horng in March. (The 2009 flood) is going to be the benchmark for the future.”

The 1997 flood was the benchmark for Grand Forks, the city north of Fargo on the banks of the Red River. Photos from the 1997 flood show a devastated city with floodwaters and flames engulfing Grand Forks’ downtown. But in 1997, Fargo residents were successful in stemming the tide as they were for the most part  this year, although the flood was blamed for three deaths in Fargo and neighbouring Moorhead, Minnesota. For a record 61 days in March and April, the Red was above flood level in  Fargo-Moorhead.

After battling floods for so long over so many years, Walaker said local residents are weary and want their city protected by a more substantial structure. In fact, local residents recently approved a half-cent US sales tax increase, estimated to raise US $200 million over the next 20 years, to pay for flood protection. 

The Army Corps of Engineers is presently developing flood control options for Fargo that will be revealed to residents later this year.

“I do think we have to do something different than what we’re doing right now in terms of flood control,” former Fargo Mayor Bruce Furness told Minnesota Public Radio. “I don't think we can go through many more episodes like we went through this past spring. People are tired of it, they’re worn out and we might not always be so successful. We just have to find another way.”

The other way just might be a floodway. Recently, engineers and politicians were in Winnipeg to investigate the merits of a floodway. The one hindrance they may encounter is its cost — an estimated US $1 billion, a far cry from the US $200 million expected to be raised from that scant half-cent sales tax.

Yet, if Fargo is serious about flood protection, they might want to take a page out of former Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin’s playbook.

The 1950 flood came as a shock for most Manitobans. Minor floods had occurred, but there had not been everything to rival its scale since 1861. When the 1950 flood came, it provided a wake-up call, although not enough of one to prevent some politicians from opposing a major $63 million — an exorbitant sum in those days — on flood protection.

“I know a 1950 flood could come again,” wrote Roblin in his autobiography, Speaking for Myself. “Naturally, I demanded action. Every year that passed brought us closer to another crisis.”

The province in the 1950s was ruled by a Liberal-Progressive coalition under Premier Douglas Campbell, which was adverse to spend money on a major project as recommended by a 1953 report by federal engineers. Among the three recommendations the engineers considered useful was a 40-kilometre diversion around Winnipeg.

“(The floodway) offers the only positive means of flood protection because it could control the whole drainage basin of the river above Winnipeg,” said the engineers in their report.

In the 1957 provincial election, after years of inaction, Roblin made flood protection an issue, which resulted in the Conservatives defeating the coalition and forming a minority government. And when he headed a majority government after the 1958 election, Roblin pressed ahead with his desire to construct a floodway, regardless of the cost.

“But political opposition in the Legislature was vocal,” said Roblin. “They were skeptical of the plan. They rejected the cost. The whole proposal was unnecessary ... But we stuck to our guns. We would go ahead and Ottawa would help.”

Without federal support, the floodway would not have become a reality, although then Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was unimpressed by Roblin’s arguments. “Negotiating with John (Diefenbaker) was an experience,” wrote Roblin. “He manoeuvred me up one side of the question and down the other ... our personal and political relations (Diefenbaker was a fellow Conservative) and more were exploited in detail.”

Roblin said the negotiations were tough because “Diefenbaker had been well-briefed, and he held to his brief. I was equally persistent.” Roblin’s persistence paid off. He managed to wrangle a 55-per-cent federal and 45-per-cent provincial cost-sharing agreement with the prime minister.

“Of course $26 million (required by the province) scandalized the opposition.” As well, a small group of local businessmen warned that the floodway was unnecessary, adding that the province would be unable to pay its share. But by spreading the project over several years and taking annual funding out of current revenues, Roblin was able to provide the province’s share. The first bulldozer began work on October 6, 1962, and by the time the project was completed in 1968 from St. Norbert to near Lockport, it was on schedule and on cost.

Roblin called the 1950 flood a traumatic and defining moment in Manitoba’s history, resolving him to do what was necessary to deal with any future threat to life. “That was the basis of our policy. Duff’s Ditch is there, and Duff’s Ditch works.”

Fargo politicians would be well-advised to consider Roblin’s example when they decide upon flood protection for their city.