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Finney receives high honor for dedicated flood reduction work

By Anna Jauhola
John Finney believes in public service. While many people serve on civic, church or nonprofit boards, Finney found his own niche in flood reduction management.
For 40 years, Finney has served on several water management boards, including Minnesota Joe River Watershed District, chair of the Red River Watershed Management Board and co-chair of the Red River Retention Authority. For his steadfast dedication, Finney recently received the 2023 Red River Basin Leadership Award. The award recognizes an individual who has shown exemplary leadership and service in working toward basin-wide solutions on water management issues.
“I was not expecting it,” Finney said via phone from his sunny winter home in Florida. “I am very humbled by the award. Many people have received it ahead of me who are much more involved and instrumental than I am. I’m just very humbled.”
The award was announced at the RRBC’s 40th Annual Red River Basin Land & Water International Summit Conference held on Jan. 17-19 at the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, Man.
“I got roped into being on the Joe River Watershed board when Uncle Harold retired in about 1984,” Finney said.
This came as a natural position for Finney, who farmed for nearly 50 years in the Humboldt and St. Vincent areas in Kittson County, which are a part of the Joe River Watershed District. It’s been a string of people who convinced him to continue serving on different boards.
When Roger Ward retired from the Red River Watershed Management Board in the 1990s, he convinced Finney to fill his spot. Others guided him toward the Red River Basin Commission in the late 1990s as well, which ultimately led him to be on the Red River Retention Authority, a joint powers group, created after the flood in 2009.
“Sen. (Byron) Dorgan wanted to set up some kind of federal authority. But we in North Dakota and Minnesota said, ‘No, we think we can do a better job with that,’” Finney said. “So we came up with a joint powers agreement for the Joint Resources Board. That’s been a good deal.”
He said that board alone has helped partially fund development for 26 projects on both sides of the Red River, including the Klondike Retention Project in Kittson County. Currently, the board is supporting a bill moving through the Minnesota House of Representatives to help fund at least $42 million in flood reduction projects up and down the Red River Valley. House File 1244 includes an appropriation of $16,850,000 for finalizing phases 1 and 2 of the Klondike Clean Water Retention Project of the Two Rivers Watershed District. It also includes funding for projects in the Newfolden and Roseau areas.
“I live five miles from the Red River, and it floods,” Finney said of his passion for the roles he holds. “It’s my mission to reduce the amount of flood damage done in the basin, and retention is an important part of that. There are several other options as well, but retention is a big deal and has been proven to work.”
A project he’s seen through to fruition, and one he’s most proud of, is the farmstead ring dike program. Following the 1997 flood, it took years to ensure all landowners who chose to remain in the floodplain stayed safe from flood water. The Red River Watershed Management Board helped ensure federal, state, local and board funding went to those who needed ring dikes around their homes.
Obtaining money, of course, remains the biggest challenge as a member of any of these boards, Finney said.
“We need state and federal money to move forward with flood damage reduction projects, but state coffers have dried up and the federal coffers are hit and miss,” Finney said. “Right now, this year’s (Minnesota) legislative session is key as to whether we move forward with projects. It’s a pivotal year.”
Despite challenges, Finney has experienced many successes as well. He finds his greatest success to be the satisfaction of his own and fellow board members’ efforts in moving flood reduction projects forward. As he continues to serve on these boards, Finney’s overall goal is to do his part to reduce the peak flood flow on the Red River by 20 percent. Each watershed district in Minnesota has put together a plan to contribute toward this reduction.
“If that’s the case, major flooding would be almost negligible,” he said.
Finney does not see a definite end for his service on these local and regional boards. Instead, he’d like to see the Klondike project come to fruition in Kittson County before retiring.
“Then I’ll think about it,” he said.

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