UND geology study: New levee systems after 1997 reduce future flood threats despite migrating waterway

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College of Engineering & Mines


The great Flood of 1997 wiped out several neighborhoods in the Grand Forks, N.D., area and caused billions of dollars in property damage.

Despite a series of massive new dikes and flood walls along the river to forestall the effects of future floods, people still have concerns about the Red’s unpredictable behavior.

Not to worry, says University of North Dakota geology student Dylan Babiracki and his advisor, geomorphologist Jaakko Putkonen, in the Harold Hamm School of Geology and Geological Engineering. The school is part of the UND College of Engineering & Mines.

Babiracki, a St. Cloud, Minn., native who graduates this week with a Bachelor of Science degree in geology, did his senior thesis research with Putkonen. He was specifically interested in the potential risks for the people living in cities along the Red River.

“The Red River will not eat your house if you live in the Grand Cities, at least not within your life time,” said Babiracki, whose senior thesis research centered on the past and future migration of the Red River in Grand Forks and adjacent areas.

Sure, there’s some cause for concern if you live anywhere a river runs through town.

“Rivers that flow through urban areas can be problematic in many ways,” said Putkonen, an expert in cold climate region-based research, including the Arctic, the Antarctic and the Himalayas. “Among the worst is the flooding such as that which occurs usually once a year in our snowy northern latitude.”

Another problematic trait is the lateral, or sideways, migration of the river channel itself.

But the flooding in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks now is effectively controlled by the manmade levee and flood wall systems.

“It may not be obvious by just eyeballing the landscape along the river that the river channel itself has moved sideways almost a mile within the past about 9,000 years,” said Putkonen.

So Babiracki—who also was part of a student-faculty team that produced a new North Dakota Atlas Online—and his advisor asked this question: How fast is the Red River migrating today, and is it going to affect me in the future?

Assuming that there are no great changes in the snow precipitation, rain and climate it is conceivable that the river will continue to migrate about the same rate in the future as it has done in the past.

“I wanted to understand the past rates to be able to predict the future” Babiracki said.

From the historical sources, Babiracki pieced together the migration history for the past 142 years.

“Within this time period, the river has moved a maximum of 178 feet sideways,” Babiracki said. “This is a respectable distance, especially keeping in mind that it is very difficult to stop a migrating river.”

“However, we don’t see any big hazards to the cities from the river migration within the next 100 years,” Babiracki said.