Decision Support for Red River Basin Watershed _ Floodplain

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					 Decision Support for Red River Basin Watershed & Floodplain Management:
             Issues and Opportunities for Sharing Data and Tools

     Terry Birkenstock, Mark R. Deutchman, Ph.D., P.E., Robert Halliday

The Red River originates as the Bois de Sioux River in South Dakota and flows north
forming the boundary between South Dakota then North Dakota and Minnesota. The
River becomes the Red River at Wahpeton, North Dakota where it is joined by the
Ottertail River. It enters Canada at Emerson, Manitoba and continues northward to
Lake Winnipeg and thence to Hudson's Bay.

The Red River basin covers 116,500 km2, of which 103,600 km2 are in the United
States. The remaining 13,000 km2 are in Canada. A major western tributary, the
Assiniboine River, enters the Red River at Winnipeg. It is a large basin, producing
relatively little runoff, and is not included in this study area. The basin generally
does not have the conventional dendritic pattern of small tributaries leading to larger
ones and hence to the river. Instead relatively short tributaries flow directly to the
main stem of the river. The opportunities for in-channel storage and construction of
reservoirs are limited.

The central portion of the Red River basin, known locally as the "Red River valley",
is very flat as it originated as the bed of glacial Lake Agassiz. The River drops only
71 m over a river length of 870 km. The slope varies from 250 mm/km in the
headwaters to 40 mm/km at the International Boundary. The River channel can hold
roughly the mean annual flood peak so during major floods the river leaves its banks
and flows north constrained by natural topography and infrastructure such as road and
rail networks. In 1997, the Red River spread to a width of up to 40 km in Manitoba.

The Red River basin has a subhumid to humid continental climate with moderately
warm summers, cold winters, and rapid changes in daily weather patterns. Monthly
mean temperatures range from -15 to +20o C. About three-quarters of the basin's
approximately 500 mm of annual precipitation occurs from April through September,
with almost two-thirds of that falling during the spring. The winter months are driest
having only about 10 to 15 mm of precipitation each month.

Figure 1. Red River of the North Basin as defined for International Joint Commission Study.

The total basin population is about 1.4 million, almost half of them living in the
Manitoba capital, Winnipeg. The Red River basin is a highly productive agricultural
region. As such, it has been profoundly altered by human activity. These changes
relate not only to drainage and crop development but also to construction of major
transportation corridors. Land use and land use change is therefore a major issue
throughout the basin.

Flood of the Century
In 1997 the Red River basin experienced the 'Flood of the Century'. The 1997 flood
arose from a number of factors: a wet autumn, record or near-record snowfalls during
the winter, heavy early-spring precipitation, and coincidence of tributary peaks with
main stem peaks. Overland flooding was significant and unpredictable even though
forecasts of River elevations were, for the most part, accurate.

The emergency dikes in Grand Forks, North Dakota and Ste Agathe, Manitoba failed
causing widespread damage. At least 103,000 people, 75,000 in the USA and 28,000
in Canada, were evacuated. There were no lives lost but flood damages exceeded
$3.5 billion in the USA and $300 million in Canada. The flood had a frequency of
roughly 1:100 but some tributaries experienced much rarer events.

Rare floods such as the 1997 one are not the only flooding problem, however. The
basin also experiences smaller floods in the spring and summer that affect rural areas
and agricultural lands. Land-use issues such as drainage and road construction, are
seen by many as contributing to the flooding problems. Dealing with the broad range
of flooding and other water problems in the Red River basin therefore requires
considerable coordinated effort. That effort is complicated by the fact that the basin
comprises two countries, three states, one province and countless local governments.
In addition, there is a broad range of governmental and non-governmental water
institutions operating at a basin-wide or subbasin level. Nearly 1000 relevant
organizations have been identified that have some role or interest in floodplain
management in the Red River Basin.

In the aftermath of the flood, the governments of the US and Canada asked the
International Joint Commission (IJC) to analyze the cause and effects of the Red
River flood of 1997 and to recommend ways to reduce the impact of future floods.
These efforts were directed by the IJC appointed Red River Basin Task Force. The
wide range of issues, interest groups, and multiple jurisdictions at play in the basin
were clarified during the IJC study. One area where there was clear consensus
concerning needed improvement related to data and information sharing: a need
existed for major improvements in data availability, improved data dissemination to
the public; more efficient data exchange between agencies involved in floodplain
management; and greater database integration for the whole basin. Improved
coordination, collaboration, and resource sharing were clearly needed.

Initial Accomplishments
Several steps toward meeting the goal of shared data were accomplished by the Task
Force including conducting a data/information needs assessment (reference), basin-
wide data inventories, and creation of a metadata clearinghouse (Manitoba). A Data
Focus Group was formed which identified and debated numerous data sharing issues
including vertical datum variances at the US/Canadian border and the use of local
datums, Canadian Policy restricting free sharing of some spatial data sets, data
quality, and data standards, however, most of the problems identified remain

In addition the Task Force, in partnership with the Global Disaster Information
Network (GDIN) initiative, initiated development of a prototype Internet-based
system to provide users with a means to obtain and share relevant data and
information. The Red River Basin Decision Information Network (RRBDIN)
( was formed to provide for an interactive and iterative process
of building basin-wide information resources and to improve communications and
enhance cooperation.

The RRBDIN also provided a mechanism for improved collaboration and information
sharing through a „Virtual Forum‟. The concept provided for Live Discussion Rooms
where round table meetings, presentations on specific topics, or mutual help sessions
were held via the Internet.

Current Efforts and Opportunities
When the IJC Task Force concluded its work in April 2000 formal coordinated efforts
and joint funding between the US and Canada for the prototype RRBDIN ended, yet
interest in the Network and efforts initiated during the study continued to evolve. The
Water Resource Branch of Manitoba Conservation expanded upon the Virtual
Database developed under the IJC Study and has been working to add additional
decision support tools both for internal use and eventually for access by the general
public in the basin. In the United States the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has
provided funding to enhance the prototype RRBDIN to a point where it can more
easily be handed over to one or more local sponsors for continued operation and
support into the future.

The RRBDIN currently consists of a growing community of " Members" (individuals
and organizations) that use, test, and direct the content of the evolving RRBDIN
Internet Web Portal (        The portal currently includes
communication tools, a searchable lists of organizations and points of contact,
documents library, policies and procedures,         web-mapping tool, and other
"Information Resources."

Decision Support Development - Most existing information systems in the Red River
Basin have been designed by separate agencies to address their individual problems
and requirements. Stand-alone systems result in „Islands of Automation‟. Advances
in information technologies allow improved means of sharing and processing vital
information. A decision support system (DSS) can connect these “islands” and
enable automated floodplain management queries and analyses to be performed by
the community of stakeholders. The DSS can be a tool that brings together the virtual
database, models, and other disparate information, and provides an integrated
environment where decisions can be made about floodplain management and flood

The RRBDIN provides the framework from which the DSS is being developed. The
DSS is being formed in several stages. The early concept for the RRBDIN included
the identification and development of several complex applications or “tools”, which
utilized seamless geo-spatial data, to aid in emergency response planning and flood

management. However, many of the early ideas were not technically feasible. For
example, an early concept consisted of fully automated execution of hydrologic and
hydraulic models across the internet, with the automated generation of input models
from the geo-spatial data. Model results were to be returned to the users screen and
graphically displayed using available geo-spatial data sets. Upon further evaluation, it
became obvious that not only was automating this process a significant technical
challenge, but an even more preliminary gap existed for a mechanism to locate,
assess, and share geo-spatial data. In many cases, the basic geo-spatial data required
were not even available.

The present, re-focused phase of the RRBDIN continues the early efforts to share
information, but takes a more basic, practical approach building upon the lessons
learned. Several use cases, developed by the community of stakeholders, have been
considered for implementation. These use cases identify the need for continued
information about activities, organizations, news and references being developed
within the basin; i.e., a basic information-sharing component. However, the use cases
also identify important new tools that are presently under development.

These primary tools consist of: 1) geo-spatial data applications; and 2) a real-time
data display for hydrologic, hydraulic, climate, weather and water quality data. The
concept is that decisions about floodplain management, disaster relief and mitigation,
and basic water management issues can be enhanced by properly organizing and
making available this information within a web environment.

The geo-spatial data applications consist of several tools. These tools include an
internet-based MapServer application for the display of basin geo-spatial data by the
client, map generation of multiple layers and the printing of maps for local use. The
RRBDIN is intended to provide seamless, authoritative data for the Red River Basin.
Several organizations continue to cooperate with this aspect of the project. Much of
this data has come from a joint US/Canadian project sponsored by the Federal
Geographic Data Committee and the GeoConnections Secratariet. Plans are to
enhance this tool to allow the upload/download of geo-spatial data.

A second geo-spatial data application is developing and making available basic geo-
spatial data used by flood managers on a routine basis. These data may be necessary
for the development of parameters used by hydrologic or hydraulic models, be needed
for understanding the movement of water within the basin, or be useful for other
reasons. Examples include land use data necessary for the development of curve
numbers when modeling runoff and a culvert/bridge database that can be used to
determine water movement and refine hydrologic boundaries. These applications are
being built with the cooperation of other state agencies using existing data sets.

Ultimately, the RRBDIN is expected to become the primary portal for geo-spatial
data within the Red River Basin. The first step in this process has been the creation of
a metadata node specific to the basin. Ultimately, the intent is to provide a geo-spatial
search and retrieval tool allowing the user to download the data locally.

Development of the real-time data display began only recently. However, the intent is
to create an application that provides real-time or near real-time data from multiple
sources including the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the
National Weather Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, North
Dakota State Water Commission, and the Province of Manitoba.

A basic philosophy of RRBDIN development is to maximize the use of data
generated or made available by others: i.e., to avoid duplication to the extent possible.
This presents a significant technical challenge because of the need for many agencies
to protect these data behind security systems. Expectations are that some of these
issues will be overcome by porting data to a server external to the agencies system.

Joint US/Canada Framework Project for the Red River Basin
A basic challenge, which became all too apparent early during the development of the
RRBDIN, is access to good, acceptable, authoritative geo-spatial data for the Basin.
A private sector/public sector partnership (the “Partnership”) consisting of US and
Canadian entities received a cooperative agreement from the Federal Geographic
Data Committee (FGDC) and the GeoConnections Secratariet during the summer of

The concept for the effort consisted of using “model” watersheds to address some of
the basic geo-spatial data issues within the Red River Basin across the US-Canadian
international border. Addressing these issues for these model watersheds increased
the likelihood of success for the entire Red River Basin. The Partnership selected two
basins with straddle the US and Canadian border for the project. The Pembina River
Basin straddles the US – Manitoba Border and has a history of complex flood
management issues. The Roseau River Basin, an area that recently formed one the
first cooperative US-Canadian Board consisting of local government representatives,
was initiating a water management planning process.

The project consisted of developing a framework in the sense of the FGDC, for geo-
spatial data within the Red River Basin. The technical challenge consisted in part of
combining geo-spatial data of varying scales, accuracy and provenance.
Responsibility of creating and making available seamless framework datasets rested
with the U.S. Geological Survey (EROS) and the Canadian Centre for Remote

Sensing. Seven data themes comprise the framework datasets: geodetic control,
orthoimagery, elevation, transportation, hydrography, governmental units, and
cadastral information. Transportation, elevation and hydrography were selected by
the Partnership as example framework datasets for resolving geo-spatial issues
between the US and Canada. Select non-framework geo-spatial data were also
created, primarily subwatershed boundaries.

Several applications were created to make these data available to general public and
illustrate the issues needing resolution. Additional work is needed to actually create
authoritative geo-spatial data for the Red River Basin.

Other Related Efforts
There are several related efforts either specific to or affecting the Red River Basin,
many of which are significant by themselves. The Information Technology Division
within the State of North Dakota is presently enhancing their existing Geographic
Information Clearinghouse. The intent is to provide access to basic geo-spatial data
for North Dakota.

The Manitoba Conservation Department Water Branch in cooperation with the Prairie
Farm Rehabilitation Services in nearing completion of an important flood
management and planning tool. The tool uses recently completed high resolution
topographic data in the form of a DEM and hydraulic simulation results to show the
predicted extent of flooding. Development includes tools to estimate resources needs
for flood fighting.

A significant and important effort within the basin was the International Flood
Mitigation Initiative (IFMI). IFMI was launched in December 1998 bringing together
30 top present and former officials from provincial, state, local, and federal
governments, private sector, and non-profit organizations together to address flood
damage mitigation concerns in the Red River Basin. The IFMI vision became one of
addressing flooding through mitigation that achieves significant flood damage
reduction goals while enhancing economic, social and ecological opportunities by the
year 2010. The IFMI effort lead to many existing initiatives for data sharing in the
basin, the most prominent being the Red River Basin Institute for Research, Mapping
and Watershed Education. The Red River Basin Institute is presently evaluating how
to best enhance the sharing of geo-spatial data within the Red River Basin. Their
involvement may include either funding support or actual development of additional
technologies. A companion effort is the development of a public educational web site
by Prairie Public Television.

Long-term Viability
A concern among the stakeholder community is the long-term viability of the
internet-based system being developed to support decision-making. This system
includes the RRBDIN, sites developed during the Joint US/Canada Framework
Project, state efforts, efforts resulting from IFMI, and the efforts of the Manitoba
Water Resources Branch and the Red River Basin Institute.

One goal is to provide a common access point to each of these information sources
through the RRBDIN. To further this effort, two important information items have
been developed. These included the development of a business model for sharing
geo-spatial data as a part of the Joint US/Canada Framework Project for the Red
River Basin. A second document identifying routine operation and maintenance costs
for the RRBDIN has distributed to the stakeholder community. This information is
intended to provide the basic information necessary to make decision about future
financial support.

A major goal of the RRBDIN is to involve the broadest range of interested
individuals in an exchange of data, information, knowledge, and ideas through the
free sharing of relevant databases and participation in various networking
opportunities. It is also hoped that ultimately this system will provide the framework
for the development of decision-making tools for floodplain management, disaster
relief and mitigation. The vision is for the RRBDIN to become a trusted and
dependable resource for informed decision-making built upon and maintained by a
strong network of cooperating individuals, organizations, and agencies.

Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC). (1999). Information/Data Needs
for Floodplain Management: The Red River Basin Workshop Report. McLean,

Simonovic, Sloban P. and Birkenstock, Terry. (2000). International Red River Basin
Task Force Database Subgroup Final Report: Red River Flooding.

Author Contact Information
Terry J. Birkenstock, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Engineer Research and
Development Center, Cold Regions Research & Engineering Lab, RS/GIS Center, 72
Lyme Road, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA, 03755; PH (603) 646-4748; email:

Mark R. Deutschman, Ph.D., Houston Engineering, Inc., Suite 106, 10900 73rd
Avenue North, Maple Grove, Minnesota, USA, 55311; PH (763) 493-4522; email:

Robert Halliday, R. Halliday & Associates, 717 Sixth Avenue North, Saskatoon, SK,
CANADA, S7K 2S8, PH (306) 665-0805; email: