Ask A Researcher

February 2017

Effects of Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion on Spring Planting for Producers

Dean Bangsund is an economist in the NDSU Dept. of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. He specializes in Impact Assessment, and has over 25 years of experience conducting applied economic research. David Saxowsky is an Associate Professor in the NDSU Dept. of Agribusiness and Applied Economics specializing in agricultural law and management..

Researchers in the North Dakota State University Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics have studied, in cooperation with the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Authority, the risk and economic impact of temporarily retaining or staging floodwater on agricultural land south of the Fargo-Moorhead community when the proposed FM Diversion is operated.  In this article, Dean and David answer some questions on how the FM Diversion might affect spring planting activities for agricultural producers operating within the Diversion’s staging area.

Can you provide a brief overview of how the Diversion might affect agricultural producers?

The proposed Fargo-Moorhead (FM) Area Diversion is intended to reduce damages due to the Red River and its tributaries flooding in southeastern North Dakota and west central Minnesota. Operating the Diversion will temporarily store as much as 150,000 acre-feet of water on 64,000 acres primarily agricultural land -- south of the FM community (staging area). The water will continue its northerly flow through the community by 1) following the Red River whose capacity is being enhanced with permanent flood protection, and 2) flowing around the west side of the community in a ditch to be constructed as part of the Diversion project.

Temporary water storage will create several issues: a need for farmers to relocate buildings, equipment and grain storage; additional travel costs for farmers if their farmstead has been relocated outside the storage area; soil erosion; loss of future development opportunities; wet soils that delay or prevent planting; and a possible impact on the availability of Federal crop insurance for agricultural land in the storage area.

How often could producers be affected?

Some effects may be incurred every year, such as having to transport equipment and production inputs into the staging area, and transport harvested crops out of the staging area for on-farm storage.

Other effects may only occur when operating the Diversion uses the staging area. The frequency of flooding is generally based on annual probabilities. The annual chance of a large flood occurring in any given year is lower than the likelihood of a smaller flood. Flood size is usually based on water volumes measured by flow rates on rivers and tributaries, and crest heights indicating the elevation of the flood waters.

The Diversion will be operated only when the river flow reaches 17,000 cubic feet per second at Fargo. Since 1969, there have been 10 floods of sufficient flow in the Fargo/Moorhead area to have triggered use of the FM Diversion's staging area; there were no such flood events between 1943 and 1968. All of these 10 events have been spring floods due to snowmelt and spring rain; none of these events occurred due to summer rain, for example. Three of the 10 large flood events, however, have occurred in the last eight years (2009-2016).

Compared to historical data, the region has experienced more frequent flooding in recent years. No one knows whether the recent frequency of flooding will continue or if the spring runoffs will return to more historical frequencies.

How often the Diversion and the staging area will be operated is impossible to predict precisely, yet frequency of flood events is critically important when addressing potential economic effects.

Will all producers experience the same effects?

No. Land elevations are different and flood sizes vary. Land with lower elevations will flood sooner and be inundated longer relative to land with higher elevations. Some land in the storage area is at sufficiently high elevations that only very large floods (e.g., 100-year flood) will inundate those tracts. In other cases, tracts of land would flood in the absence of the diversion and the diversion may have no effect on the length of inundation. Engineers project, however, that operating the Diversion will extend the inundation of some tracts, as well as inundate tracts that would not otherwise flood. Which tracts are affected by the operation of the Diversion will vary based on the magnitude of the flood event.

Also, depending upon crop rotation, effects relating to the timing of planting activities will be different among different crops. In any given flood year, tracts of land that farmers intended to grow soybeans are expected to be less impacted than tracts intended to grow sugar beets or corn, due to the later planting time of soybeans, for example.

It is possible in flood years that general planting conditions in the region will be delayed far enough into the spring that producers within the staging area are not disadvantaged compared to producers not in the staging area.

What were the range of effects observed in the study?

Effects on planting activities were estimated to range from "no effect" to "planting was prevented."

The challenge, however, is comparing "the impact of a flood without the Diversion" to "the impact of a flood event with the Diversion." The consequence of constructing and operating the Diversion is only the difference between those two sets of impacts. Care must be taken to not compare "the outcome of a flood with the Diversion" to "the outcome when there is no flood."

No one statement can describe the impact of operating the diversion. For each flood event, the impact of operating the Diversion will place each tract of land into one of five categories: 1) no impact because the land floods for the same time without or with the Diversion, 2) no impact because the land will not flood whether or not the Diversion is operated, 3) no adverse impact because the Diversion shortens the time that water inundates the tract of land due to enhanced drainage as part of the Diversion project, 4) possible adverse impact because operating the Diversion extends the duration of the inundation, and 5) possible adverse impact because operating the Diversion will cause the land to flood whereas it would otherwise not be inundated by that particular flood event. These last two categories draw the most attention.

If flood size varies, timing of floods vary, the elevation of the flood crest varies, and producers raise different crops; how are all the variables handled in the study?

The study used a simulation approach that allowed the timing of flooding and timing of spring planting to be driven by historical data. The simulation modeling was performed with 10,000 replications - each replication representing a potential year - using five flood sizes. Key variables in the simulation that were allowed to vary in each replication included:

  • Timing of the flood — date when the Diversion would be activated and the lowest tracts of the staging area would begin to be inundated
  • Date when spring planting could begin — estimated for both "without Diversion" and "with Diversion" conditions
  • Yield loss — relationship among "optimal planting time and optimal yield", "expected planting time and yield without the Diversion", and "delayed planting time due to operation of the Diversion and estimated yield loss"
  • Planting rate — the pace at which crops can be planted and whether the planting rate could reduce the impact of a delay in planting due to operation of the Diversion; the planting rate is a general indicator of the conditions present (e.g., moisture, temperatures) during spring planting.

Other factors were constant for each simulation, such as land elevation, dry down period, crop prices, crop rotation, and initial crop yields. The period of time that lands would be inundated due to operation of the Diversion did not vary within a flood event, but was a function of flood size and land elevation.

If there are so many factors that could influence the effects, what conclusions did the study produce?

The study found a high likelihood of planting delays resulting from use of the staging area during a flood event, but the length of those delays was generally modest compared to the overall planting period. However, it is difficult to generalize the findings because differences in land elevation produce flooding conditions that vary based on flood size. For example, a producer may have a tract of land that is not inundated in a 25-year flood, but is expected to be inundated in a 50-year or larger flood.

The greatest adverse impact would be on land that is inundated due to operating the Diversion that would otherwise not be inundated by that particular flood event.

Additional Resources:

FM Diversion Project Website

Basic Overall Map of Channel and Staging Area

Overall Map of Channel and Staging Area

Reports Referenced:

Bangsund, D. A., S. Shaik, D. Saxowsky, N. M. Hodur, E. Ndembe.  Expanded Geographic Assessment of the Agricultural Risk of Temporary Water Storage for FM Diversion. North Dakota State University, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, Agribusiness & Applied Economics Report Number 754, September 2016. < http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/244517 >

Bangsund, D., S. Shaik, D. Saxowsky, N. Hodur.  Initial Assessment of the Agricultural Risk of Temporary Water Storage for FM Diversion.  North Dakota State University, Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics, Agribusiness & Applied Economics Report Number 745, October 2015. < http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/record/211469 >

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