Red River of the North

Family canoeing

The Red River of the North (Red River), in part, forms the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota. The river flows north through the Red River Valley and empties into Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. It is approximately 550 miles long, which is nearly double the straight-line distance, and only falls 230 feet along its entire route ... a slow-moving river that gently meanders along silty bottomlands.

People and Wildlife in the Red River Valley

The Red River Valley is a recreational paradise.

Spring and summer offer endless opportunities for canoners, kayakers, birdwatchers and anglers. In fact, the Red River is internationally known for its trophy-sized channel catfish. Other fish species include muskellunge, northern pike, smallmouth bass, fresh-water drum, sauger, bullheads, walleye, goldeye, mooneye, carp, and lake sturgeon.

Fall brings countless prospects for hunting  enthusiasts. There are large numbers of pheasants, migrating waterfowl, and whitetail deer. There are also plenty of furbearers, mourning doves, partridge, turkeys, squirrels, and rabbits.

Winter snowfalls create a haven for cross-country skiing, sledding and tobagganning, snowmobiling and even snowshoeing.

Threats to the Red River Valley

Red River
In years with exceptionally heavy snows or spring rains, however, the Red River swells and catastrophic floods result. To make matters worse, because the river flows north, snowmelt further south is dammed by river ice and deposited on top of already saturated and frozen ground.

Flooding is further exacerbated due to a combination of a changing climate and the drainage of thousands of prairie wetlands. These wetland, which once soaked up thousands of acre feet of water, have been ditched for agricultural production.

Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota have always been threatened by flooding from the Red River. In the last two decades, however, floods have become more frequent and more severe. In the spring of 1997, a major flood caused $3.5 billion in damage and required temporary evacuation of towns and cities on both sides of the border. In the spring of 2009, the river reached its highest level in recorded history and crested at 40.82 feet. The communities of Fargo and Moorhead now spend more than $195 million annually for flood damage.

Solutions for the Red River Valley

To address the flooding issue, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) originally proposed a massive, $1.4 billion diversion channel to divert river flows around Fargo and Moorhead. However, in September 2010, the Corps announced it would delay completion of this plan to allow for additional analysis of alternatives. The supplemental draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is expected to be released by Spring 2011.

The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) commends the Corps for its decision to evaluate the following cheaper, safer, longer-term, and more environmentally-friendly alternatives that protect both humans and wildlife.

  • Strategic water storage in the form of wetland restoration - Once one of the richest prairie wetland environments in the world, massive wetland drainage in the Red River Basin has occurred during the last century. More than 85% of the wetlands in the Minnesota portion of the Basin have been drained, including 28,000 miles of ditches, and significant wetland destruction has also occurred in North Dakota.
  • Red River
    “Waffling”®
     - The University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) has been studying the “Waffle”® concept for years. The basic plan is simple – existing roads serve as levees to store water in farmer’s fields during large floods. One square mile, one foot deep, would store more than 200 million gallons of water. The EERC estimates the system could be implemented throughout the Red River Basin for only $160 million and it would also provide sustaining economic benefits to participating landowners.

A combination of wetland restoration and “Waffling”® would not only address the flooding issue while recharging the aquifer and improving water quality, but also provide fish and wildlife habitat while increasing recreational opportunities.

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