On The Road (Maybe) In Flood Country

Inside Dakota Ag

These farmers say there's an easy way to protect township roads -- if USDA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would get out the way.

Published on: May 12, 2011

The last couple weeks I've spent a lot of time on township roads in Dakota flood country -- northeast North Dakota, the Red River Valley, the James River valley and Devils Lake basin. The township roads are mess. Some farmers can't get to their homes. Some can't get equipment to their fields. Everybody has to go a long way out of their way to get anyplace.

So I was riding with Terry Entzminger, of Jamestown, N.D., and he says that he wishes USDA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would let farmers drain or pump out wetlands next to township roads. If they could draw down the water it would keep the roads open. Sounds like a good idea. Maybe farmers could even build dikes across some of the wetlands to keep the water off the low spots in the roads, just like they build ring dikes around their farms. That would keep the roads open and allow farmers to get to fields.

Julie Schemionek, Devils Lake, N.D., says the situation in her area, is similar. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service owns a lot of land in the Devils Lake basin, or has control of land through perpetual easements. It won't allow township roads adjacent to their land to be raised if it means widening ditches. To raise roads, contractors need to widen the road base. It simple physics.

"All we're asking is to protect the roads," says Schemionek, who is about to lose the road to their home. She and her family have already lost the use of 1,700 of the 2,200 acres they used to farm. Some of the land is underwater. Some is high and dry but they can't get to it because the township roads have washed out between them.

Changing the rules about how wetlands next to township roads can be managed sounds like a simple, reasonable request. It probably would even save taxpayers money. In watersheds were the water eventually drains away the government spends a lot of money fixing roads after the flood, but the repairs aren't permanent. The roads wash away the next time it floods.

It seems ironic that the city of Fargo is now talking about using eminent domain to force relucant homeowners along the Red River to let them build permanent flood walls to protect the rest of the city. City officials cite the economic impact a record flood would have on the city -- property that would be damaged, business activity that would be lost and jobs that would disappear. They expect to have no problem taking the land they need to build what they want to keep the water in check.

But in rural North Dakota, just the opposite is happening. A couple government agencies seem to be standing in the way of protecting homes, businesses and jobs. And for what? So ducks can nest in road ditches?

Something needs to change.