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Fargo, Dallas, New Orleans and the Corps of Engineers

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Fargo, ND 1897 flood

Fargo, ND 1897 flood

 

 

While working on a post related to coastal economics I changed my topic this morning upon hearing Steve Inskeep’s interview with Fargo, North Dakota’s Mayor Dennis Walaker on NPR’s Morning Edition.  The mayor described an emergency effort on the part of residents and officials to shore up threatened levees on the Red River* with sand bags against rising water levels.  

This effort is being undertaken under conditions hard to relate to in Louisiana – bitter cold and snow! I noted that Mayor Walaker gave high praise for the participation of the Corps of Engineers.  

As shown by the 1897 photograph, the 2009 flood is not the first time that the Red River has overtopped its banks but in 1897 Fargo didn’t have a serious levee system.  Now they’re trying desperately to raise their levees with sandbags against a projected record stage of 41 feet on March 29.  Remember that global climate change predicts extreme regional floods and droughts, as well as net warming of the entire planet.

On a related subject, yesterday Frank Truesdale sent me three essays by Jim Schutze from the Dallas Observer, one from February 11, one from March 4 and one from March 24.  These pieces describe a very expensive and controversial public works project in Dallas called the Trinity River Project.  

I urge you to read these opinion pieces in order.  They should strongly resonate with NOLA residents because they describe eleven years of planning for a development project (toll road through the city) that involves the all-too familiar volatile mix of levees, flood risk, engineering, politics and the Corps of Engineers.

On the other hand, the portions of these op/ed pieces that compare the Dallas situation with New Orleans’ Katrina experience are sure to raise your blood pressure, especially if you believe that the corps bears full culpability with respect to the Katrina levee failures in New Orleans.  Here are two debatable quotes from Schutze’s Feb 11 piece, one implying that the NOLA politicos are responsible for Katrina disaster and the other that the corps should, can and will do its job if left alone: 

To this day, it is rare in public political discourse in this country for anybody to speak honestly about the culpability of local pols in New Orleans for the Katrina floods. The locals had pushed and pulled for a century to get the federal government to help them build cheap, badly designed levees so their real estate cousin-buddies could sell flood land to middle-class and poor people.

They’re (the corps) not politicians. Their job is to look at the dirt, look at the drawings, do the math and tell us if it will work or not work.

Whether or not you agree with these statements, Mr. Schutze makes some good points about attempts to use brute political force to roll science – and nature.  The Dallas toll road project, very popular with business interests, apparently could compromise the Trinity River levee system.  Schutze describes a classic flawed assumption on the part of development lobbyists – that technology will always out when it comes to man against nature.  

My experience with Dallas is based on regular visits to my daughter while she attended the Hockaday high school, running the Dallas White Rock Marathon in 1994 and occasional meetings over the years on coastal issues at the EPA Region 6 headquarters.  I saw an awful lot of concrete in Dallas.  

Speaking of concrete, the Trinity River, which normally “trickles” through Dallas encased in the stuff, seasonally rises over the armored portions of the levees and inundates the upper earthen portions. Failure of these levees could devastate Big D’s downtown, just as failure of the river levees would devastate New Orleans.

With the Trinity River Project, the Corps of Engineers has become caught up in a classic struggle between engineering and politics.  A critical legal issue raised in Dallas that is relevant to New Orleans’ flood protection is the question of the ownership of flood control structures.  

The corps oversaw the design and construction of the levee system to prevent the Trinity River from flooding Dallas, but the city cost-shared the project and now owns it.  So what party is responsible for long term liability in case of failure?  More muddy, who is responsible for levee failure if the city alters the flood protection system (by building the highway) aganst corps’ advice?  Such behavior on the part of an automobile owner would void his warranty.  

Schutze ultimately celebrates the likely demise of a poorly conceived and oversold concept that had for years seemed unstoppable. Apparently its rising price tag will kill it in the end.  

Len Bahr

* This is the Red River North, which flows through North Dakota and Minnesota heading north to Manitoba, not to be confused with the Red River South, which flows south from Texas and Oklahoma into Louisiana.

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