ND flooding in Canadian hands, but few complaints

Associated Press
Floodwaters from the Souris River surround railroad tracks headed into Minot, N.D., Sunday, June 26, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The causes for flooding along the Souris and Missouri rivers sound familiar: Heavy snowpack and lots of rain have forced dam releases that send river water rushing over levees downstream.

That's where the similarities end.

Unlike the Missouri River, the Souris' water flows are being decided in Canada by the Saskatchewan Watershed Authority, rather than the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. federal agency that manages the Missouri River's six dams in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska.

The Corps of Engineers has frequently been the butt of criticism for its Missouri River management. North Dakota U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, Gov. Jack Dalrymple and at least one state lawmaker are supporting an inquiry into the causes of the Missouri River flooding.

So far, there has been no similar outcry about the Saskatchewan agency. The North Dakota Water Commission's chief engineer, Todd Sando, said the authority did the best it could to mitigate Souris River flooding in Minot and other communities.

"They did a wonderful job holding back not just one flood, but a couple of floods, already," Sando said. "They have been able to hold back big rainfall events, but we just kept having more and more of them. It's just overwhelming everything."

Minot state Rep. Dan Ruby said the flooding should prompt a re-examination of water policy in the Souris River's basin, but he said he was reluctant to blame anyone for the flooding along the Souris, which flows in a loop through northwestern North Dakota, cutting through Minot before turning back north into Canada.

"It's really a difficult situation to try to play armchair quarterback with," Ruby said. "It's certainly a disastrous situation for both governments."

In Saskatchewan, about 15 engineers, hydrologists and other experts in the authority's headquarters and five regional offices take part in daily conference calls to review provincial water conditions and eyeball the status of the Rafferty and Alameda reservoirs, which feed water into the Souris.

The Rafferty dams the Souris River about 4 miles northwest of the border town of Estevan, Saskatchewan, while the Alameda Dam holds back the smaller Moose Mountain Creek, near Oxbow, about 2 miles from where the creek joins the river.

More than a week ago, between 4 to 7 inches of rain deluged parts of the southern province, falling on ground already waterlogged from earlier rains and melting snow. That triggered runoff that Dale Hjertaas, an authority spokesman, said was "well beyond anything that we have ever seen before."

Authority officials decided to gradually increase water releases from the dams to levels certain to cause major flooding downstream.

Hjertaas said the agency had no choice. Both Rafferty and Alameda couldn't store any more water and another large storm could have pushed water over the tops of the dams, risking a catastrophic failure.

Saskatchewan is suffering from unprecedented flooding of its own, causing headaches for the energy industry and leaving nearly 5 million acres of farm land unplanted.

Saskatchewan's energy and resource minister, Bill Boyd, said many oil leases are under 6 feet of water, making it impossible to drill. He estimated the flooding would cost the energy industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

In June, the Souris's normal flow in Saskatchewan is a relative trickle, about 70 cubic feet per second. In recent days, water releases into the river have ranged from 15,900 to 18,000 cubic feet per second, Hjertaas said.

"It normally doesn't have a lot of flows," he said. "This is a river you can pretty much jump across in the summer."

The Rafferty and Alameda dams were part of a broader $100 million Souris River flood control project that included improvements to the dam at Lake Darling, a North Dakota impoundment northwest of Minot, and channel work on the river itself.

The new Canadian reservoirs provide recreation facilities and a more reliable water supply for the area, along with cooling water for the Shand station, a coal-fueled electric power plant near Estevan.

The U.S. contributed $41 million to build the two dams in exchange for flood water storage space in both reservoirs. The Rafferty and Alameda project, which was developed from 1988 through 1995, drew protests from environmentalists concerned about their impact on water quality and fish and wildlife habitat.

At a Red Cross shelter in Minot, where he was forced to take refuge after his home flooded, Bennie Brown questioned the Canadians' dam management.

"They should have been letting water out all year, all winter. Now, all of a sudden, they're starting a flood, so they just, 'whoop,' let it out on us," Brown said in an interview over lunch. "Now, we've got to suffer and pay for it."

Across the table, Ann Harris disagreed.

"(Saskatchewan) cities are flooding. The whole basin is flooding. I don't know if anything anybody could have done could have prevented this," Harris said. "Mother Nature is just putting on her fury again. She put on her dancing shoes and decided to party."

Dalrymple said he had conferred with Saskatchewan's premier, Brad Wall, about water releases from the Rafferty and Alameda dams after the torrential rains. Saskatchewan has plenty of incentive to hold back water to remedy its own flooding problems, Dalrymple said Saturday.

"Our interests are aligned," he said. "They have exactly the same attitude that Minot has. They're willing to go to the tops of their dikes, but obviously they don't want to go any higher than that."