Senior Right-of-Way Specialist Lisa Brekkestran Brings Expertise, Compassion, and Trust to Her Role on Major Red River Valley Flood Mitigation Project
December 9, 2021
Fargo, North Dakota — For more than 100 years, the Red River Valley of northern Minnesota and North Dakota has been a source of recurring floods, causing tremendous damage to the metropolitan area of Fargo-Moorhead. Within the past 25 years, the valley has experienced three significant floods – in 1997, 2009 and 2011 – which resulted in millions of dollars in property losses and heartache.
Each spring, all eyes within the region pay close attention to the weather … and the Red River. While many hope for a gradual, uneventful thaw, abnormally warm temperatures combined with rainy weather upstream, near the source of the Red River at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers, can turn into disastrous floods as the Red River flows along the Minnesota-North Dakota border into Manitoba on its way to Lake Winnipeg.
“Because the water in the river runs north, that water naturally encounters ice, which then blocks the water flow in the river so that water levels rise,” said Senior Right of Way (ROW) Specialist at Ulteig, Lisa Brekkestran. “The dynamics are different for every type of flood. In 1997 we had 120 inches of snow. In late March of that year, the snowpack began to thaw; however, a blizzard in early April 1997 brought a severe drop in temperatures, winds up to 70 mph and up to 2 feet of snow. All of this was preceded by wind-driven rain and a sleet storm that toppled trees and powerlines. All of these factors caused severe overland flooding throughout the area. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, the Red River area also experienced heavy snowfall, thaw and spring rains south of the area, which contributed to severe flooding.”
In her role as a Right of Way Specialist at Ulteig, Lisa Brekkestran is playing a key role in securing right-of-way agreements for the construction of an accredited, 100-year flood diversion system designed to reduce the impact of future flooding events in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo region. The Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project, will provide protective infrastructure to significantly reduce the susceptibility to flooding in the metropolitan area and surrounding communities, home to more than 238,000 residents. Ulteig ROW staff, along with three other land consultant agencies, are assisting their clients in securing the land needed to build the FM Area Diversion.
Acting on behalf of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, Brekkestran negotiates with property owners on the use of their land for the project. Sometimes this involves purchasing homes and agricultural land that has been in a family’s possession for generations, dating back to the late 1800s, when North Dakota first became a state.
To say it’s intense work is somewhat of an understatement. Emotions can run high. Lack of trust with the government can make earning the trust of a homeowner or landowner very difficult. Brekkestran’s 15 years of experience in ROW (she’s worked with Ulteig for 20 years) has helped her become intimately acquainted with the protocols of working with landowners, but it’s never easy. She’s witnessed a range of emotions, from intense anger to relief and acceptance.
“For me, the human aspect of my work is very special,” notes Brekkestran. “The process is very personal; We have to walk through a resident’s home and go through each room to assess what needs to be relocated. We become very close to people just based on the general conversation necessary to perform our job.”
Drawing on Integrity to Help Others
Brekkestran recounts a story of homeowners who had discussed relocating for about two years due to an illness. This project acted as an opportunity for them to have their home purchased and to relocate without having to go through the financially and emotionally exhausting process of selling their home themselves.
“The couple ended up finding a beautiful, cute, one-level home in town. When they moved into their new home, I stopped by to check on them and picked up the keys to their old home,” recounted Brekkestran. “It was very heartwarming to see that they liked their adjustment. They loved their new home and didn’t take it as a negative. They were also a lot closer to the medical treatment they needed. For me, that’s a win-win for everybody.”
While the relocation process may be welcomed by some, for other families, it can be anything but.
“I’ve had homeowners express their frustration to me, but I never take it personally,” said Brekkestran. “I focus on helping them understand how their land will help the community as a whole and save them and others from serious flooding issues in the future. My main concern when presenting information to a homeowner is to always give them the honest truth. Sometimes we are educating the public about a project that has a lot of inaccurate, negative news surrounding it. It is my job to be an accurate source of information as I guide them through the process. That is a big thing to me.”
“It can be challenging to persuade a home or landowner to embrace a project through a future’s mindset,” Brekkestran added. “People are often stuck in the present, and if there is no flooding at the moment, homeowners will often want to wait. I guide them through the construction schedule and hope that they understand how emergent the task at hand actually is.”
This doesn’t discourage Brekkestran, who only wants the best for the homeowners with whom she’s dealing. To her, it’s critical to always meet people with compassion.
“I love what I do because I get to help people,” said Brekkestran who trained as a legal assistant before joining Ulteig. “It is so important to meet people where they are at and truly understand where they are coming from. It is my job to be patient and calm, and to be a thorough, detail-oriented listener.”
Ulteig: A Positive Force in the Community
Brekkestran recognizes that Ulteig’s positive reputation in the Fargo-Moorhead area is an incredible asset to her and her work.
“Ulteig has a great presence in the community — they always have,” said Brekkestran. “A lot of the people in the communities in which I work know that Ulteig provides good service. This is a very complex project, and our reputation has been critical to its success.”
Ulteig’s reputation in handling ROW with integrity also extends to retired employees who, in the past, have assisted Ulteig’s ROW team from time to time.
“The older retired agents like to keep the position as a side job because they enjoy the work,” noted Brekkestran. “We’ve had a number of retirees who work here beyond retirement because it is such a great environment.”
Belief in What We Do
While Brekkestran’s work can be difficult and certainly complicated at times, it helps that she believes in what she does, and the positive impact a project can have on a community – or even the world. While the work of Brekkestran and Ulteig’s entire ROW team often goes under the radar, their contributions to all of Ulteig’s projects is immeasurable. Wind farms, solar farms, water pipelines, roads, bridges, gas pipelines, electric utility lines – you name it – securing rights of way for these projects is absolutely critical to their success.
“I believe in what we do and in what I do,” she said. “We’re making communities, such as Fargo-Moorhead, safer. We’re making these places better. And, in the case of this project, we’re helping some homeowners avoid future losses. I never thought about it in this way before, but we’re helping to build a better America. I can see the impact that I’m having and that our firm is having. That’s why I love what I do.”
Check out the video of Lisa here.
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