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Down on the Farm: Flood folly

Early settlers built their settlements on rivers because that's where the power was for milling the crops. The larger rivers also provided transportation to ship the goods to market.

Now, 130 years later, the rivers are useless except to provide a little pretty scenery that breaks up the monotony of the prairie.

Due to human ingenuity and technological progress, the spring melt drains faster than ever off the farmland and heads right towards the towns on the river, towns which now suffer 100-year floods two springs out of three.

To who live by the river, the prettiness is wearing thin.

Then came the trains. Towns sprouted near the tracks because the rail was the lifeline to civilization. Trains brought the mail and the groceries and the visiting relatives.

Railroad tracks went right through the heart of the downtown of the river cities because that's where industry was. And the downtown depot was where people caught the train to get to civilization, or to go fight wars.

Now, 120 years later, the railroads carry more coal than people. The coal and other goods head somewhere out east. The trains don't even stop at the old depot.

Yet trains still rumble right through the downtown where they snarl up traffic and hit the occasional inebriated pedestrian.

Early settlers adapted, at least for a while. Dozens of little clapboard towns built before the railroads came through simply dried up when the tracks were completed. Some people moved buildings miles to be closer to the rail.

Now we are stuck. Our towns are too big to move away from the rising water. Instead, we kept building bigger buildings and more houses right at the lowest spots in our big old lake bottom.

Now, it is too late to adapt to nature. We are faced with the much more expensive task of forcing nature to adapt to us.

Downstream on the Red River is the city of Winnipeg with at least five times the population of any upstream city. After a flood disaster in 1950, Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin decided to build a diversion.

"Duff's Ditch," as it was dubbed by its opponents, was completed in 1968 and first saved the city from major flooding in 1969. Seven times since then, Winnipeg has been saved by the efforts of Mr. Roblin, who, by the time he died a few years back was regarded as a hero.

After a few close brushes with disaster, Fargo is fighting for a similar diversion. Perhaps we should call it "Denny's Ditch" after Fargo flood-fighter extraordinaire Dennis Walaker.

Undoubtably a wise move, the ditch, which will cost a tremendous amount of money, now faces a severe threat.

In a colossal political mistake, the people along the Red have gotten good at fighting floods. The panic and failures of 1997 have been replaced by a calm, workmanlike and effective response.

Preparation has improved. Diking has improved. People know the drill. No more last-minute massive sandbagging panics. No more leaks through the sewer.

Worst of all for the prospects of long-term funding, there will likely be no national television coverage of neighborhoods underwater and flooded buildings burning down to the water level.

No good deed goes unpunished. If you anticipate disaster and use past experience to prepare for it, you get no national attention.

You can hear the conversation in the halls of Congress: Why should we pay a billion dollars for Denny's Ditch when the good people of Fargo seem to be getting along fine without it?

We have come a long way from the days when towns were built and torn down for solid, local economic reasons.

Now, to get anything done, you need a big disaster that is recorded on video and played over and over on the national news until people in California start calling their congressman to forget the deficit, we have to rescue those poor people waving from their roof up on the tundra.