Fargo Bypass

This water map seems to show an easy bypass of the Fargo Moorhead area via cutting a bypass channel from upstream of the towns (to the south or bottom of the map) across to the right and into the Buffalo River system.

I don’t see a lot of evidence of city / roads out that way, so the disruption would mostly be to farms and farm families. One would also need to assess the ability of the Buffalo River to take added water without a bypass of it’s own.

A detailed topo map would make it easier to see how much tilt there was to the system… but at this scale the engineering looks ‘doable’ to me.

For an example of what I’m talking about, see the Yolo Bypass in Sacramento and the Yolo causeway that crosses it. Fargo would probably not need one quite so large!


About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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12 Responses to Fargo Bypass

  1. vintagejenta says:


    Thanks for all the lovely comments on my blog!

    I’m sorry if I was short in my climate change comments. It is just frustrating to hear from people who think they know better than you when making decisions regarding your hometown. And when those comments become derrogetory (not yours, but you read the others), it’s very difficult not to feel incredibly patronized and condescended to.

    The bypass is definitely an idea, but the Buffalo “River” is not really a river as those living along, say, the Hudson or the Mississippi would define it. It is even smaller than the Red (which is normally maybe 50 yards across, a pro baseball player could probably toss a baseball from one bank to the other) and not very deep and not very wide. In late August, you can walk across it.

    So, if a divertment were to be connected to the Buffalo, it would endanger Georgetown, a small town north of Fargo-Moorhead practically on top of the place where the Buffalo enters the Red.

    With such a bypass, there is also the danger of western Clay county (Moorhead, Dilworth, Glyndon, etc.) getting caught on a relatively narrow strip of land with a spreading body of water on each side.

    Some people have suggested that drain tile projects by farmers are partially to blame for the increased flooding, which I would cautiously agree with. I would put in my own two cents and point out that conventionally farmed soil tends to be hard, dry, and does not absorb water as well as soil rich in organic matter (sticks, leaves, microbes, etc.). Although, this year, the ground was already saturated.

    We would also do well to restore our wetlands in the area, especially around small streams and ponds. These are now mostly drained for farming and housing settlements.

    But mostly, flooding is just something people in our area have to deal with. This is the worst it’s ever been (excepting 1897, which apparently followed a horrifically snowy winter) and building more levees, as some have suggested, would only worsen the problem (narrower channel means deeper, faster water).

    People living near the San Andreas Fault and on the sides of volanoes deal with the danger, and so do we.

    Again, thanks for all your lovely comments. I’m so glad someone else appreciates simple, frugal, well-cooked food!

  2. H.R. says:


    A bypass here, a levee there, and pretty soon the people further downstream have real problems.

    I think vintagejenta said it best here.

    “[…] But mostly, flooding is just something people in our area have to deal with. This is the worst it’s ever been (excepting 1897, which apparently followed a horrifically snowy winter) and building more levees, as some have suggested, would only worsen the problem (narrower channel means deeper, faster water).

    People living near the San Andreas Fault and on the sides of volanoes deal with the danger, and so do we. […]”

    Exactly, vintagejenta.

  3. Roger Sowell says:

    Please send all flood water to us in Southern California. We could use it!

  4. E.M.Smith says:

    @Vintagejenta: Your blog deserved every word. You are clearly a kind soul with a beautiful world view. (Besides, anyone with your passion for food just must be a good person!) We share more than divides us. My family is from a Viking background on one side. Dad was from a farm in Iowa (not too far south of you…) on the banks of the Mississippi with a similar life experience to your family. Besides, I really love cooking and canning! and:


    is just the kind of thing my farm ancestors would have made and I just must try it myself!

    @ H.R.: A bypass is not just a levee! A levee constrains a river and makes it run faster and higher in a smaller channel, making a flood peak worse. A bypass adds to total river width (and volume) letting the flow slow down and run lower. It is basically a restoration of part of the original spreading natural flow, but in a controlled way and place.

    it reduces the downstream problems more than it increases them!

    I did notice Georgetown. The way that is handled is by putting a channel just up stream of that town to take the excess water back to the Red channel. (A bypass of its own?) Basically, you don’t just dump water on the other side and walk away. Using the Buffalo is just a convenient way to avoid bulldozing and diking a second river all the way around Fargo. You would still make sure the channel is up to carrying the added water.

    Folks in the middle would not get trapped. A Bypass is an active system. The water only enters the bypass if the weir at the entrance lets the water in. You can shut off the water to the bypass at any time you like and actively manage it to never be at flood stage. Also, take a look at the Yolo Causeway link. You can just drive over the bypass, even when in full flood (I’ve done it!).

    Oh, and it’s worth mentioning that you don’t need to send the whole Red River over into the Buffalo! Just the (10%?) that makes the difference between a Red near flood stage and a Red over flood stage! How much better would the Folks in Fargo have felt if they knew that the river could reach, say, 39 feet but not go over 40!

    The alternative would be to bulldoze a (10 feet?) deep and a (couple of hundred yards?) wide channel around Fargo (not all the way to the Buffalo) and pile the dirt up as levees on each side. Then divert the excess into that Bypass at a weir upstream of Fargo and back into the Red after Fargo. It’s more work than using an existing channel and ‘beefing it up’ but avoids having a second drainage system involved (and Georgetown). My inspection of the map made it look like Moorehead was spread out enough that you ended up going very near the Buffalo anyway, so why not use the existing channel. But this really needs an engineering design review to decide.

    Drain tiles and caliche formation are issues in low rainfall / high evaporation areas. And yes, working the humus out of the soil makes floods worse. But the hydrology map looks like most of the water is coming from the drainage area south and that looks a bit hillier. Not the kind of place to need drain tiles?

    And finally: Yes, everybody copes with their local hazards. That is what a Bypass is / does! It is the coping behaviour. Just like I have a water tub and quake kit (and would never live in a home / apartment building over 2 stories tall; and have things bolted down – including bolting the house the concrete and…) And just like when I lived 5 miles from the river I was really really happy the Yolo Bypass had been built as a coping behaviour for our local flood hazard!

    You can move the town, move the water, or accept the flood.

    Of those three: accepting the flood does the most damage; moving the town is psychologically painful and costly; and moving the water costs the least with the minimum impact on life, property, and the land.

    Properly engineered, a bypass reduces flood risks for everyone (including downstream) while still allowing the land to be used for farming and recreation when the river is not at flood stage. The cost is low, the effectiveness is high, and the impact on the land is minimal (a couple of levees and a weir). It does require a wide enough and flat enough plain to add the channel, but that looks very available near Fargo.

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    @Roger: So, if the Fargo water were sent to the Missouri river then your proposed lift into the Colorado basin would get it to L.A.? Doable? Looks like it to me…

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    Looks like I need to play Engineer and put some numbers on things…

    According to the USGS at:


    The 20,000 CFS rate looks like a ‘normal high’ where the 30,000 CFS rate was during the Oh My God flood stage. This means that a bypass needs to carry about 10,000 cubic feet / second.

    A channel 10 feet deep and 1000 feet wide would need to move at 1 foot / second to carry that volume. Very acceptable for a bare dirt bypass with decent dirt levees.

    A walking pace is about 3 miles / hour or about 1.45 feet / second so we are talking a flow rate of about 2 miles / hour.

    This ‘back of the envelope’ calculation says that Fargo could be made flood safe by building a dirt/clay berm levee (with rock facing?) bypass all of 1000 feet wide.

    If the slope lets you get up to 2 feet / second that drops to 500 feet wide. 4 feet / second (getting a bit fast for dirt, add rip-rap to the levee) 250 feet wide. And deeper would be narrower still.

    We’re not talking a miles wide bypass like the Yolo nor a river like the Sacramento here… We’re talking something about the capacity of the California Aqueduct:


    but for vastly less distance. (The California Aqueduct runs most of the length of the state and crosses a mountain range).

    So if made like the Aqueduct, we’d be talking a concrete ditch about 3000 sq feet cross section or about 150 Feet by 20 feet. Somehow I don’t think this would even be really noticed out in the middle of the farm land east of Moorhead…

    It looks to me to be fairly easy (if not quite trivial) to solve flooding issues for Fargo forever. Minor engineering of much smaller scale than has been done in California 30 to 40 years ago for irrigation and drinking water; on a scale that would blend into the landscape with about the impact of adding a large road.

    With that said: A “Real Engineer – tm” would need to look at the facts on the ground to design a real solution.

  7. Roger Sowell says:

    Hey, the Romans would have laughed at us for our ineptitude with water. Ancient Chinese had very sophisticated irrigation and flood control systems, they would be laughing too. Apparently the Egyptians had canals that used very small slopes. This stuff aint rocket science.

    Very doable. Just need the will and the money. We could easily turn Arizona, Southern California, and New Mexico in to garden states. (well, not like New Jersey, but with lots of things that grow).

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    I wish I could let go of an idea once it grabs me, but I can’t…

    In thinking about snow and ice dams, it occurred to me that using ‘cut and cover’ would give most of the benefits of a bored tunnel with most of the cost savings of a ditch… and nothing much visible on the surface for a pristine look.

    It would cost more to build than a ditch, but the lack of snow to deal with and with ice filtered out at the weir / grating at the entry the maintenance costs would be much lower.

    There would be a wide spot on the red with a weir taking water from under the ice level, a grate to keep out anything else, then a concrete ditch with a cover (with a couple of feet of dirt on top so you could graze cattle…). At the other end, you have another wide spot on the Red where you dump the water back in (shaped so ice dams can’t form at the outlet) with a gate to let you close off the bypass entirely for maintenance.

    Almost nothing visible, almost no maintenance. Just no floods.

  9. E.M.Smith says:

    BTW, I swapped from UTC to local time (PDT) so the comments will be a bit out of time order for about another 5 hours…

  10. Roger Sowell says:


    More on the routing of excess Red River flow to the Missouri: it looks to me like there is only 150 miles or so between Fargo and Bismarck, each on a river flowing opposite directions (Red going north at Fargo, Missouri going south at Bismarck). Bismarck is about 1900 feet elevation, Fargo is about 900 feet. Therefore will require some energy to pump the water uphill approximately 1000 feet. Not easy, but doable.

    One solution I always favored was using part of the energy of flooding water (kinetic energy) to spin a turbine, drive a pump, and send the water to wherever it was needed. This is where the engineers get creative, by building a concrete sluice, gradually higher and narrower, thus building the velocity of the flowing water. When the velocity is high enough, then have the water strike the water turbine, to produce power to pump a portion of the water to wherever it is needed.

    Hydroelectric dams use this principle, by having the water conduit taper down just before the water strikes the turbine-generator. The velocities are huge in those designs.

    Or, could send the water South to Sioux City, elevation only 1117 feet. Farther distance at 300 miles, less height differential. Or, start a little bit further to the south, say at Wahpeton ND, elevation 965 feet.

    As any rescue worker can attest, there is serious energy in flooding water!

    It is just a matter of will, and investment. The engineers can have it working inside of a year. No flooding in Fargo ever again!

  11. E.M.Smith says:


    Since you don’t want to move the entire Red River, wouldn’t the ratio of moved / non-moved be what’s available to power the pumps? So if you wanted to move 20% up hill 1000 ft it would take a drop of about 250 feet for the other 80% to run it. I just have to think there is somewhere South of Fargo where a 250 foot elevation change is available to run a turbine…

    Dam a 250 ft head, hydro turbine, pump 20% over the hill… Seems pretty direct to me. And the lake would dampen some of the flooding too.

  12. Roger Sowell says:


    You may be right; I have never been there but I hear the land is very flat, therefore difficult to build a dam / lake.

    As to the water ratios, one must allow for the inefficiencies of the turbine and the pump. Combined, the best we get is around 90 percent for something like Hoover dam, but for a smaller system like this with irregular flow, it would be more like 40 to 50 percent. We could probably move 5 to 10 percent of the water (2 to 4 feet out of a 40-foot flood mark) and that should be enough to avert massive problems. Also, a lot depends on how high the water must be pumped — higher elevation means reduced flow of pumped water, and vice versa.

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