Grafton looking for $31.5 million from feds for flood protection

With local residents still cleaning up from three spring floods — the last of which resulted in an estimated $2 million in damage to private and public property in Grafton alone — city officials pressed Sen. Heidi Heitkamp on Tuesday to bring permanent flood protection to the community.

“I want to get permanent flood protection before we have a devastating event, not after,” said Mayor Chris West, adding that the estimate was a preliminary, ballpark figure.

Grafton is seeking $31.5 million in federal funding for a proposed $42 million Park River Flood Control Project. The North Dakota State Water Commission approved a $7.1 million match for the project in 2010.

The Park River runs through north Grafton on its way to the Red River. The proposed diversion project would provide 100-year flood protection for the community.

The city would pay for its $3.5 million share with funds from budget reserves and its 2 percent city sales tax, which brings in about $600,000 annually.

Heitkamp, who also visited Grafton’s veterans clinic as part of a statewide tour of veterans facilities, said that while she empathizes with the city’s dilemma, she could make no promises.

“We’re deeply concerned with what happened this spring,” the freshman Democrat said. “It looks like Grafton’s ready. The citizens are ready. But in Washington today, it’s difficult to identify an individual project for funding.”

However, she said the city faces two major obstacles: The difficulty in obtaining federal funding for individual projects because Congress has eliminated earmarks, a process by which funding for such projects was added onto other appropriation bills; and because the city twice before has turned away federal funding for permanent flood protection.

Grafton residents have rejected paying the local share of previous proposed projects Congress approved in the 1980s and 1990s. In those cases, the local share was higher.

“I can’t speak for the past,” West said. “I can only speak for now, and we need this protection.”

Held up

Grafton, like other flood-prone communities without permanent flood protection, relies heavily on the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s strategy of building temporary levees during floods.

Heitkamp said it’s possible to obtain the necessary funding through the federal Water Resource Development Act, which has passed the Senate. However, similar legislation has not passed in the House of Representatives.

“We need to get the WRDA bill done in order to do some of the water projects we need,” she said.

Local, state and federal officials still are calculating the total damage from spring flooding, not only in Walsh County but throughout northeast North Dakota.

The mayor estimates the city’s share of fighting the spring floods — for protecting public infrastructure — to be more than $1 million this year.

The region is included in a presidential disaster declaration for initial spring flooding. However, damage from flooding prompted by heavy rains in mid- to late May is part of a separate disaster declaration request.

An estimated 500 to 600 homes in Grafton had flood damage in the latter event that resulted from sewers backing up in basements.

Grafton, a city of 4,200 about 40 miles north of Grand Forks, also has experienced chronic flooding in the past.
In 2009, the city also experienced three separate spring flood crests, and in 2002, more than 200 homes in the city were damaged by flooding.