With water, it’s either too much or too little

Post Date: Apr 09 2010

Imagine, for a moment, this scenario:

A plan is hatched to divert river water by creating a big ditch.

It’s going to cost more than a billion dollars, and the federal government is planning to fund half of it.

Disputes ensue over the project’s enormous costs, where it will run, and environmental concerns related to what it might mean for the river’s creatures and surrounding habitat.

Sounds a lot like today’s plan to build a Red River diversion around the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, right?

But a similar storyline played out beginning more than a half-century ago in central North Dakota — and the Garrison Diversion still isn’t completed.

There is one major difference between the Garrison Diversion and the Red River diversion: The Garrison Diversion was meant to bring water to the Red River, not funnel it away.

And even though too much water is the problem we in the Red River Valley have right now, it’s instructive to look at history so we might glimpse what could come of the plans we’re making now to address today’s water issues.

For that, an admittedly very simplified history of the Garrison Diversion:

In the 1920s, even before the “Dirty Thirties” made North Dakota cracked and barren, eastern North Dakota was concerned about a lack of water for its fields and fast-growing population. If you can imagine it, Devils Lake was drying up.

Not long after, a prolonged drought gripped the region. The Red River stopped flowing a total of 800 days between 1932 and 1940. Plans were quickly hatched to dam the still-flowing Missouri River at Garrison, N.D. The dam was completed in 1953 and began forming the giant reservoir we now know as Lake Sakakawea.

In 1965, Congress authorized the first of three eventual payments to build the Garrison Diversion, more than 120 miles of canals and pumping stations to bring Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota for irrigation and Devils Lake stabilization.

By 1976, the 74-mile McClusky Canal was built from the east edge of Lake Audubon (a part of Lake Sakakawea) to near the Sheyenne River’s headwaters north of McClusky. A second 44-mile New Rockford Canal was later built from 1983-91 to help speed western water to eastern North Dakota. Still, there is a 22-mile stretch between the two canals that hasn’t been completed because of repeated funding and environmental setbacks.

About the time federal funding for the Garrison Diversion was slowed in the early 1990s, eastern North Dakota experienced the start of its current wet cycle.

Some climatologists believe we’re on the downslope of our current wet period, but nobody knows for sure, and we’ve had more frequent floods, which is why there’s a lot of money and political capital being spent on a permanent solution to flooding.

But it makes one wonder if by the time Denny’s Ditch gets dug, we’ll be again worrying more about having enough water instead of having too much.

Matt Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum, which like the Daily Globe is owned by Forum Communications Co.