Things that grow on North Dakota soil tend to be pretty tough,
and Roger Shea is no exception. Born in 1925 and raised in Enderlin
on land that his grandfather broke a hundred years ago, Shea lived
through the Great Depression and World War II. For decades, he's
endured the blistering heat, brutal snowstorms, crop-decimating
hail and intense rains that dog the lives of North Dakota farmers.
But all that is nothing, he says, compared to the latest plague:
a government plot to build a dam across the Maple River, a dam that
would flood his farmland.
"As far as I'm concerned, it won't be built," said Shea, breathing
hard and sweating in the late June heat. "It's a bad project." And
to stop it, Shea sold 1.43 acres of his land last July to the Turtle
Mountain Band of Chippewa for several strings of beads and a stack
of Pendleton blankets. The Chippewa say the land contains Indian
artifacts andin a move that would block the damthey
hope to have it designated as Indian trust land.
Shea and others object to the dam not only because it will flood
their land and disturb Indian cultural sites, but because it could
damage the local water supply, an aquifer that supplies water both
for residents and for the local Archer Daniels Midland oilseed processing
plant, the town's largest business. If the water supply is contaminated,
ADM will leave, they argue, and the town's economic base will collapse.
ADM has objected to the dam, as have the town council and county
But dam proponentsincluding North Dakota Gov. John Hoevenargue
that the Maple River dam is essential to prevent floods in towns
downstream from Enderlin. Communities like Durbin, Mapleton and
Harwood, about 7 miles from Fargo, have been hit by floods three
times in the last decade. "We get the overflow from the Maple,"
said Carol Hallett of Harwood. "We're really in rough shape. I hate
to be 'cry for me' but it comes right at our home."
Hallett runs an in-home day-care service, and the floods disrupt
her business at the same time they ruin her house. In 1997, flood
insurance helped pay for $20,000 worth of damage, but much of the
cost was paid in sweat and tears. And after the April 2001 flood,
she's fed up with the sand-bagging, tired of the clean-up and sick
of rebuilding. She wants the Maple River dam now.
Even so, the proposed dam might not solve Hallett's problem. Shea
says that local farmers have installed too much drainage tiling
and their field runoff feeds into the Maple downstream from the
proposed dam site. "So a dam will do nothing at all," he said. And
he and Hallett agree that the diversion recently built to prevent
floodwaters from flowing into West Fargo now brings floods into
Harwood instead. "We never had this [flooding] 'til they started
doing that diversion," Hallett observed. "They solved one problem
and sent it through the other way."
Shea and Hallett agree on one other thing. The whole situation
is, in Shea's words, "a big, complicated mess."
Unfortunately, problems like thisrepeated throughout the
Ninth District and across the nationhave seemed largely immune
to solution. Despite massive expenditures to control rivers, and
regardless of the sums we spend to help those afflicted by floods,
flooding has continued. In fact, flood disasters have become increasingly
frequent and expensive. And some suggest that our solutions are
actually a major part of the problem: Dams and levees might be exacerbating
flood losses, and flood bailouts could be encouraging people to
build in the floodplains. Why then do we keep building and bailing?
What have we learned from a decade of disasters?