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Supporters of cemeteries south of F-M speak out against flood diversion plan

Joel Hanson visits the family grave site at the Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery south of Fargo. Family members of many of those buried there are concerned about the cemetery becoming covered by floodwaters from the proposed Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion during severe floods. Photo by Dave Wallis / The Forum

WILD RICE, ND - Joel Hanson is haunted by the thought of the coffins of his brother, mother and other family members getting pulled out of the ground by floodwaters and washed away from the Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery.

He’s not alone.

At least six cemeteries south of the Fargo-Moorhead area could be inundated with backed-up floodwater, from just a few extra inches to 10 feet or more. It’s collateral damage from the proposed flood diversion project.

Together with representatives from another 10 cemeteries who believe they’ll be negatively affected by the diversion, Hanson and other cemetery managers formed the Upstream Cemetery Authority to “speak with one voice” for the roughly 3,500 ancestors buried in ground now facing the threat of flooding.

Officials from the Diversion Authority say they’re sensitive to the issue and still working up a study of how much extra water cemeteries upstream will see because of the diversion. The study is expected to be released later this week, after which they’ll begin discussing mitigation with cemetery managers – from building ring dikes to anchoring gravestones and the last resort, relocating an entire cemetery.

But members of the Upstream Cemetery Authority say they’ve received little, if any, contact from Diversion Authority leaders about the impacts the diversion may have.

“We want to have a say and not just be told what’s going to happen,” Hanson said.

The Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery sits a half-mile from the Red River, dotted by fresh flowers and more than 350 gravestones. It’s surrounded by farmland and protected by trees planted by the cemetery’s founders in the late 1800s.

“The people who are buried here helped develop Fargo,” Hanson said.

He has his final resting place picked out: a few feet from where his brother and mother are buried. Hanson’s father will lie alongside his mother.

The cemetery floods naturally, but “that’s an act of mother nature,” Hanson said. “It’s an act of God, and we’re willing to accept that.”

What he can’t accept is the additional 8 feet of water the diversion is projected to push onto this small cemetery, according to an estimate a Diversion Authority consultant provided to Hanson.

“I don’t want my mother and my brother to be sitting under 12 feet of water,” he said.

At issue is the so-called staging area, where floodwaters will collect during severe flooding before feeding into the proposed 36-mile flood channel around the metro. In most cases, the water would sit for three to seven days, Cass County Administrator and diversion official Keith Berndt said.

It’s a controversial component of the project, but project proponents say it’s an integral one.

Now that Congress has authorized the diversion, Berndt said it’s “really time to stop the debate about what is the project.”

“You’ve always got to store that water on somebody’s land. You just can’t get around that,” he said.

Upstream opponents disagree. The staging area’s estimated impact on cemeteries has become another rallying point to call for changes to the project’s design to nix the staging area altogether.

“We want to lessen the impacts. That’s the goal, however it needs to be done,” said Luke Brakke, who represents Hoff Lutheran Cemetery in Minnesota.

Berndt said the diversion’s impacts on upstream communities have been exaggerated, including on cemeteries.

He said initial surveying shows the dam that ties back the staging area will back up water onto six cemeteries, three of which now experience flooding. And with the diversion operational, an additional 19 cemeteries that currently flood will stay dry, Berndt said.

He denied the Upstream Cemetery Authority’s assertion that 16 upstream cemeteries would be affected by the diversion. But he insisted the Diversion Authority is trying to be respectful.

“But you’ve got to look at the big picture,” he quickly added. “Do we say, ‘Well, there are three cemeteries that we’re causing the problem to be worse?’ Or do we flood 200,000 people so we don’t put extra water on those cemeteries? We’re going to be reasonable with them, but at some point common sense has to come into the equation.”

Hanson, who lives in Fargo, said he thinks upstream communities – and their cemeteries – are being ignored for the sake of protecting the future development of Fargo

“Yes, Fargo is important. But why doesn’t our community matter? Why don’t we matter?” he asked. “Knowing there are other options out there, it just is really frustrating.”

Berndt said they’ll consider three primary options for mitigating the impact of floodwaters: building a ring dike around a cemetery, anchoring the graves into the ground or simply committing to fixing any damage created by the storage area.

There’s one final option, but it’s costly: moving the whole cemetery.

John Runsvold, owner of Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home in Fargo, said it can easily cost $2,500 to relocate just one grave. That means it would add at least $875,000 to the

$1.8 billion project in order to move Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery.

Combined with onerous state laws restricting the movement of graves – in Minnesota, a grave can’t be moved without the consent of its trustees – and the cemetery managers’ steadfast opposition to moving their loved ones, it’s a non-starter.

Though several cemetery representatives stressed that the staging area is the problem, Brakke said he’d “rather see a ring dike than see it get flooded.”

Hanson said the Diversion Authority’s promises of respect and mitigation have so far been empty. Their only communication with diversion officials has been to give basic information about the cemetery to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s as if we’re just supposed to give them everything they need ... rather than actually including us in the process,” he said.