Planning for Rochester's flood control project began at least 30 years ago, but it took less than 24 hours to make it happen.
A torrential rainstorm July 5-6, 1978, which killed five people, caused the city's worst flood and one of the state's worst natural disasters. It also made the long sought-after flood control project the city's highest priority.
``That flood, as tragic as it was, opened the doors for us in Washington,'' said Darrell Strain, a former member of the Rochester City Council. He made dozens of trips to Washington, along with several other members of the council and city staff, to lobby Congress to approve the project and money.
When Strain ran for the council in 1969, flood control was his main issue because he'd lived through the Minnesota River flood at Mankato in 1965. When he moved to Rochester, he began to read about the potential for severe flooding here.
``That suggested we could have a major flood like the one we had at Mankato,'' he said. ``We are just a big bowl sitting here with five streams coming in.''
That's pretty much what got Harry Buck, former head of Quarry Hill Nature Center, into heading a citizen's advisory committee in the 1970s. Selling flood control wasn't easy, he said. ``People did not want to spend the money, and environmentalists said, `Geez, you're going to ruin the river,' '' he said.
Because of that, the project stalled.
Then came July 1978. He later showed every civic group that would listen the 1978 pictures of water chest-high in shopping centers, homes with water in second floors, floodwaters rushing through Mayo Park.
The 1978 flood helped get the project approved both here and in Washington, but designing it wasn't easy.
Several ideas were tested and shot down before the final project -- seven upstream reservoirs and substantial channel work along the Zumbro River and other streams in Rochester -- was finally accepted.
One early idea was to straighten the Zumbro as it passes Mayo Civic Center so it would go through where the new library is. Another plan featured large tunnels to direct the Zumbro or Bear Creek underground. Both ideas were discarded.
Another plan would have bought all homes and businesses in the floodplain and moved them out, along with construction of large dikes, Strain said. ``Right off the bat, that was unacceptable to the council'' because of disruption or destruction of neighborhoods, he said.
Eventually, the idea of combining reservoirs with in-city work rose to dominate planning. But again, it wasn't easy.
The original plan had 10 reservoirs, including three on the Zumbro. One would have created a 700-acre lake that would have expanded to 3,500 acres in a flood. It also would have flooded Salem Corners and a cemetery, required moving two dozen families and hurt the Byron School District by taking land off the tax base.
That plan was scratched. As the final design emerged, the fight focused on how to make the project look good.
Initially, the corps wanted to make a large ditch through the city, line it with rock and put a fence alone it, Buck said. The citizen's committee hated that idea. It ``wanted to establish some semblance of green,'' he said.
Eventually, aesthetics and trails were added.@et