WEST FARGO — Blake and Cathie Wrigley lost another huge tree in their backyard in the southern part of West Fargo this spring as the flow of the Sheyenne River further eroded the bank.
The 40-foot tree sits in the river, along with a few others, as the river makes a slow bend behind the housing subdivision near 52nd Avenue South and across the river from Sheyenne Street.
"It's kind of odd to see a tree with leaves growing on it in the middle of the river," Wrigley said.
Not only was the tree lost, but he also estimates about 8 to 10 feet of the bank have slid into the river in the past three to five years.
Their neighbors to the north, Beau and Jessica L'Heureux, also have seen the river take its toll on their backyard. They have lost three of their backyard sprinkler heads and, although they've only lived in their home about two years, they also can see earlier remnants of the erosion.
A 50-foot tree that once sat in their backyard now sits in the middle of the river, much more visible when the flow of the river decreases. Wrigley said it fell it about five years ago.
When the water is down in the river, it looks more like a creek, according to Wrigley and L'Heureux.
Wrigley, who has lived in his home there since 2000, said that's the case many years, even in some of the spring months.
He does hear the comment from some people that goes, "Well, you live on the river and that's what happens."
He said when he built there he wasn't in a flood plain and has never had to pay any flood insurance. The 6.8-mile, $27.8 million West Fargo Diversion, finished in 1992, has been a blessing for those along the river because it has never failed and stood strong against the record floods of 1997 and 2009.
However, the bank erosion of late and falling trees are causing concerns, although West Fargo City Engineer Dustin Scott said it's not a panic situation.
Wrigley took the problem to the Southeast Cass Water Resource District last month and he said the managers on the district board realize the problem exists.
"They told me it's the worst they've seen it this year, with the amount of trees in the river," Wrigley said.
The banks of the river are simply getting "more unstable all of the time," Wrigley said.
In a special meeting late last month, the water district board and city officials from West Fargo decided to take a first step in addressing the issues by agreeing to an inventory of the banks and trees along the 11 miles of river in West Fargo and Horace, according to Mike Opat of Moore Engineering of West Fargo, who works with the water district, and Scott.
Scott said letters were sent to homeowners along the river in West Fargo last week because the public works employees who will be doing the inventory will be on private property. Some of the river banks may be inaccessible, Scott said.
The city engineer said homeowners along the river actually own the property up to the middle of the river.
"It's a difficult conversation to have with homeowners," he said, telling them that it's their property and they may be responsible for any work that needs to be done.
However, once the inventory is complete along the river, Scott and Opat said they really don't know what the next steps may be to help the situation.
Opat said the water district may assist in removing trees in the river through its maintenance fund. That work could be done in the winter months when the river is frozen to provide better access.
As for bank stabilization, Opat and Scott both agree it's a challenge and that there's no easy answers.
Opat said the current wet cycle is one cause of the problem, while Scott said the cycles come and go, citing the dry 1980s when the Sheyenne was down to the size of a small creek.
Wrigley wonders if water flowing into the Sheyenne as Devils Lake is drained is a part of the problem, too. The 591-mile Sheyenne River starts in central North Dakota near McClusky, which is north of Bismarck, then heads northeast to near Devils Lake and then turns south to Valley City and Lisbon. It then meanders back northeast again into Cass County near Kindred before dumping into the Red River about 15 miles north of Fargo.
Scott said the Devils Lake question is a technical and complicated issue. Although he theoretically thinks it could affect the river level, he doesn't know how much and doubts if it really has a serious negative impact.
Wrigley also thinks the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion could help the situation of high flows. Scott said there are many benefits to the proposed diversion, and he thinks the designs he's seen could help reduce the flow into the Sheyenne.
In the meantime, the inventory will help show where bank erosion is intensifying and also where trees are hanging precariously over the river and could take the bank with it. Opat said cutting the trees down might help in some areas as it could help save part of the bank.
At least the inventory can help in that situation, too, he said.
As for remediation of river bank erosion, no one has any good answers.
However, Scott said, the inventory would allow for discussions and collaboration with property owners, the water district and other interested parties.
"It's a can of worms, but at least now we will know what's in the can," Scott said. "It can give us some peace of mind."