North Dakota drainage project aims to ‘ditch’ erosion and flooding issues

Two-tiered channel, native vegetation belt will boost water quality in Walsh County

Nearly every year, it seems, the Red River is in the news—for all the wrong reasons—on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border.

In Danielle Gorder’s mind, no news is definitely good news.

“Rural drainage is such a major issue in the Red River Valley,” says Gorder, an environmental project manager with the Red River Regional Council in Grafton, North Dakota. “We’re in a unique part of the state. The central portion of our county (Walsh County) has a very steep elevation gradient, and the eastern portion is about as flat as you can get.

“So we really suffer from erosion and flooding here,” she adds, “and anything we can do improve our drainage practices is so important to the community.”

In the face of nearly constant flooding and erosion, the Walsh County Water Resource District (WCWRD), at the request of local landowners, is in the midst of building Legal Drain 87, which will boost drainage capacity and reduce erosion for almost 33,000 acres of agricultural land.

Key to the Legal Drain 87 initiative is a 2.9-mile-long, two-tiered drainage channel, emptying into the Park River, with self-sustaining floodplain “benches” on both sides that promote the natural flow of water.

With involvement from the Red River Regional Council, and support through an Ecofootprint grant from Enbridge, the project—located along the outlet of Legal Drain 87—aims to reduce erosion, improve water quality and minimize nutrient pollution.

The project involves planting of native prairie vegetation on the slopes of that channel—82 acres in all—that will provide excellent filtration for excess nutrients from agricultural runoff.

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“The vegetation will have deep, wide-spreading roots that will hold the bank together, reduce erosion and minimize nutrient pollution,” says Gorder. “And we’ll also be incorporating a wildflower into the mix, which will promote pollinator habitat.”

The project is expected to be completed in 2018, during the first phase of Legal Drain 87 construction.

Enbridge’s Ecofootprint program was established in 2015 to support environmental restoration and improvement efforts in the communities crossed by our proposed Line 3 Replacement Project.

Earlier this year, Enbridge announced that 17 organizations in North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin would receive Ecofootprint grant funding in 2017. Grants for these grassroots-level environmental initiatives total more than $1 million—and they include a $100,000 donation for this Walsh County project.

Self-sustaining drainage channels like the one being built near Grafton are tried, tested and true, notes Gorder.

In the Great Lakes region, more than 40 miles of these channels have been built, and it’s estimated that they remove nearly 45,000 pounds of nitrogen from water supply each year—a process that otherwise costs up to $60 a pound.

What’s more, the cost to build a two-tiered channel is usually offset by substantially lower maintenance costs, versus conventional drainage ditches.

“This is a practice that’s working in places like Indiana, Minnesota and Ohio,” says Gorder. “The WCWRD and I are excited to work on a project like this in North Dakota.”

(TOP PHOTO: This two-tiered channel in Michigan, six years after construction, shows the effect that the WCWRD is aiming to achieve with its own channel project. Photo courtesy Jon Witter, Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Ohio State University)