By Dan Feldner
Members of the Ward County Commission met Monday with Congressman Rick Berg, R-N.D., to discuss the flood recovery and infrastructure situation across Ward County.
Commissioners attending the meeting were chairman John Fjeldahl, Carroll Erickson and Jack Nybakken. Also in attendance were emergency management director Amanda Schooling and county engineer Dana Larsen.
"One of the things that's critical, obviously, is the Minot region, Ward County," Berg said. "I think there's been a lot of attention put on things that are happening right in Minot, but I wanted to take the time to really find out what are the issues that our office should be aware of, what I can be aware of, what I can do to help."
Larsen started things off by going over a few of the issues the county has faced since the Souris River flood last year. One of the biggest issues Larsen touched upon was the sheer magnitude of the recovery effort.
He said one of the problems they're running into is that water is still rising in some areas of the county due to excess moisture from past years finding basins to flow into.
"And actually some of the flooding is still happening, or it's still moving through the system, either underground through the aquifers and showing up in new lakes and new areas that are rising, to water going from slough to slough to slough and combining to make large areas of rising water, putting new roads under water," Larsen said.
He said there are a numerous number of Emergency Relief projects in the county, many of which are receiving federal help with an 80/20 cost split. Larsen said the local share of the 20 percent of the cost is already $9 million, and that's only for half the roads in the county that were affected.
Larsen mentioned many of the roads in need are not being funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is putting further strain on the county's resources.
"They were funded originally, and then they (FEMA) started going deep into the details and they were wondering, 'Well why didn't you take out bids before you rented these tractors to do this pumping?' " Larsen said.
Berg shared Larsen's frustration that FEMA would be telling the county it should have waited for bids for equipment that was needed immediately to deal with the flood situation and its aftermath.
"We're trying to dewater areas so people can get back into their homes and they're wondering why we didn't take bids," Larsen said. "Well, we were able to just find some tractors that we could use."
Larsen said Gov. Jack Dalrymple even removed the bidding requirement because of the severity of the situation. The need for quick, decisive action in that situation was apparently something FEMA failed to understand.
Larsen also said when the county meets all of FEMA's paperwork requirements, the federal agency seems to come up with even more.
"Sometimes when you're flood fighting it's really hard to guess what they may want," Larsen said. "You try to make sure you track everything and keep your costs and know what stuff was used for."
Yet another problem Larsen is having with FEMA involves them stating some affected sites weren't actually impacted by the flood when Larsen knows they were and has the proof.
"It seems like once they send a guy up here, that's the final determination and it's a lot of work to get that changed," Larsen said.
Larsen and then Schooling touched on the difficulty of local townships to finance the cost of repairs to their roads. Although the local share for townships is only 6 percent, with some of them having damages exceeding $1 million, even 6 percent of that is a huge amount that will take them five to 10 years to pay back, according to Schooling. And she said that's only if there is no other damage to deal with in those five to 10 years.
"Just to come back from the 2011 disaster is going to take them 10 to 15 years, if they're lucky. And that doesn't even count the new stuff that's coming up with the disaster we declared this month," Schooling said. "There's hundreds of thousands of dollars that if we don't get this declaration, that's 100 percent out of pocket."
Erickson mentioned the continued flooding at Rice Lake. While many people have a second home there, he said there are also several primary residences that need as much help as possible. A lot of money has been spent pumping water for the past year and a recent sewer failure has put the area in a bind.
Ward County Road 9, a paved farm to market road south of Makoti, was also discussed. Larsen said that road is under water by about 13 feet, and will take roughly $15 million to $20 million to repair. A few homes and some land in the area are also being flooded.
"We refer to it as a mini-Devils Lake because that's basically what it is," Larsen said. "It's a closed basin."
One of the biggest challenges of this particular situation is that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has determined it has jurisdiction over local authorities.
"Because there's a boat ramp at the neighboring lake, when that water flows from that lake to the other lake they (Corps) now consider it navigable waters, so it's a jurisdictional lake," Larsen said. "So we'll have to go through all the Corps requirements to do any type of project there. So we've pretty much added about 6 months to a year."
"You stop working with the state water commission and start having to work with the Corps," Larsen added.
Larsen said they have looked at a number of solutions to repair the site, which would be eligible for federal highway funding at 80 percent. The solutions considered include pumping, permanent drainage using underground pipelines, a grade raise that would need over 1 million cubic yards of dirt, a bypass route, and even a bridge.
Larsen said he is also concerned that the Corps is trying to get even more power over local jurisdictional waters, and he told Berg it was something to keep an eye on in the future.
Berg said it's important for him to know about the needs of the county because there will probably only be one round of funding available this year, and he wants to have as much information as possible to target that funding where it's needed most.
"It's important for me, for us to be up to speed on all this emergency money because we're probably going to have one funding vehicle this year, and I want to make sure that we leverage that as best we can for North Dakota," Berg said.