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Floods

4/20/2006:

It was on this day in history that Grand Forks was dealing with the immediate aftermath of their dikes breaking, unleashing one of the most worst floods in state history.

Three days earlier, the Red River had crested in Fargo at 39.5 feet, surpassing the 1897 record. When those waters reached Grand Forks, nothing could hold them back, and nearly half of Grand Forks’ population had to be evacuated from their home while, downtown, buildings surrounded by floodwaters were on fire.

The following year, on April 14th, the Grand Forks Herald won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the flood and fire – they had continued to publish their paper from a damaged printing plant.

Floods were nothing new to the state, of course. As long as snow has melted, people have had to deal with rivers overflowing their banks. Exactly 100 years earlier, in fact, rivers all across the state flooded.

In his book, History of North Dakota, Elwyn Robinson wrote, “The winter of 1896-97 saw a very heavy snowfall, and some towns were without train service for a week. When the snow melted in the spring, a great flood spread along the Missouri, James, Sheyenne and Red rivers. It swept away property, drowned many deer, inundated, towns, covered twenty-five blocks of paving in Grand Forks, damaged bridges, and made a lake thirty miles wide and a hundred and fifty miles long in the Red River Valley. Families and livestock huddled on the tops of haystacks.”

Two of Minot’s worst recorded floods took place in 1904 and 1969, when the Mouse River overtook the city. Because there were only 11,000 people living in Minot in 1904, that flood was considered less damaging than the one in 1969, which now had a population of 35,000. But if the water coursing down the Mouse in ‘69 had been as heavy as it was in 1904, the latter flood would have been even more catastrophic. Engineers have estimated the peak flow in 1904 was 12,000 cubic feet per second – almost double the peak flow in 1969. One reason Minot’s 1969 flood caused more damage, however, is that a lot of low ground had been filled in and built upon, and the water had nowhere to go.

As in the Red River Valley, floodwaters in Minot take a very long time to recede. Both rivers have a low-water slope of only 6 inches per mile, so the water forms lakes that last for weeks.

After the 1904 flood, there was much talk in Minot of creating artificial run-off channels for the Mouse River, but not much happened. When drought hit in the 1930s, the threat of flooding was non-existent, and the topic was more or less shelved.

Ironically, an accidental solution came from what is now called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which bought up large, cheap chunks of land – mostly dried-up sloughs that were considered useless. Their goal was to create two waterfowl refuges above and below Minot. When a dam was built 52 miles upstream in 1935, Lake Darling became one of those refuges. For seven years, the lake never got high enough to push over the dam’s spillway. When it did, in 1942, it was shown that waters held back by the dam significantly lowered flood damage downstream.

Many people thought that Lake Darling solved Minot’s flood problems, but in the 1960s, the Corps of Engineers believed that Minot was still vulnerable. A diversion system was being planned, but final decisions were still to be made when the 1969 flood proved the engineers right.

Written by Merry Helm