FARGO – Plans for a Red River diversion aren’t set in stone, but they are becoming more and more concrete – including the oft-debated alignment for the proposed 36-mile-long channel.
This fall, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began honing in on more specific features of the diversion, including its final path.
While three years of study defined a suggested alignment, the design phase is where those boundaries become fixed.
A significant portion of the alignment could be pinned down as early as this month, with engineers aiming to lock in the diversion’s path north of Interstate 94 by December.
The diversion’s route south of I-94 remains fluid. Residents there oppose the impacts the project will cause, and some still hope the alignment can be changed to lessen the blow.
For West Fargo, an alignment change would mean future growth.
For Oxbow, it would mean a future altogether.
But despite lobbying efforts, the odds of such drastic changes to the diversion’s path seem slim.
Corps engineers have said repeatedly that any alterations to the proposed alignment would be by “feet, not miles.”
The possibility still exists for minor tweaks, but the corps’ final feasibility report all but crosses major changes off the list.
Corps engineers found “no significant unique benefits” after studying the changes lobbied for by local communities.
City leaders here cite multiple reasons for favoring an alignment 1.5 miles west of the planned diversion footprint.
A western route would provide more room for future growth, as well as protect existing infrastructure, city leaders argue.
However, the corps’ analysis shoots down many of the city’s concerns.
A key piece of rural infrastructure, the Western Area Power Administration substation, sits high enough to be shielded against high floods and an adjusted alignment would provide “limited” additional protection to the site, the corps said.
The substation lies 1.5 feet higher than a 500-year flood, and access to the site would remain open up to a 100-year flood level, according to the corps.
West Fargoans also fear possible consequences from tying the Red River diversion into the existing Sheyenne Diversion west of the city.
“We cannot afford to have that protection jeopardized,” Mayor Rich Mattern said, citing erosion among the concerns.
The corps continues to conduct soil analyses as part of designing the final project, but engineers said regardless of which alignment is constructed, the Sheyenne Diversion channel will need to be altered.
The Horace leg of the Sheyenne Diversion will be rendered unnecessary with the Red River diversion in place, the corps said.
Meanwhile, the West Fargo portion will remain as is, continuing to divert Sheyenne River flows northwest of the city.
Neither the east nor west alignment is better than the other from a technical standpoint, the corps said.
One of West Fargo’s primary motives for a western alignment is the potential for future growth that might come with it.
Mattern said the corps should have considered West Fargo’s comprehensive plan in its analysis, as it did Moorhead’s and Fargo’s.
But federal law prohibits the corps from specifically considering the benefit of future development when studying water projects.
Mattern also has concerns that residents will lose convenient access to bridges crossing the half-mile wide channel.
The corps said bridges will be constructed at least every three miles along the 36-mile route, but Mattern said West Fargo would still lose three of the four bridges built across the Sheyenne Diversion.
He said that’s “unacceptable” because of the necessary transit for emergency services and school buses.
In their final report, corps engineers wrote that a western alignment has been “screened from further consideration” in favor of the eastern route.
Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof holds out hope that changes can be made to include his community in the diversion’s protected area.
Oxbow and rural towns south of Fargo-Moorhead asked the corps to consider starting the diversion’s path farther south, but that also isn’t a feasible change, the corps said.
Moving the Red River inlet south of Oxbow would cost an extra $35 million, plus result in “several adverse consequences” on the environment and designated floodplain, the corps report states.
Including Oxbow in the protected area would inherently take additional land out of the floodplain, the corps says.
That, in turn, would require extra storage in the proposed staging area south of the diversion, the corps said.
As planned now, Oxbow and several nearby communities – such as Hickson, Christine and the Bakke Addition – lie in a proposed staging area and will be inundated with extra water in major floods.
If Oxbow is included in the diversion, the project would require higher control structures and tie-back levees to make up for the extra storage needed, the corps said.
That extra height could also create problems upstream, a consequence that would cancel out the corps’ reason for proposing a staging area.
Upstream storage south of Fargo-Moorhead was added to the project last year after studies showed downstream impacts would be worse than expected.
The corps said the current alignment is a “practicable alternative” to a more southern alignment.
Nyhof and other rural residents, however, maintain their opposition.
Nyhof said he believes the alignment “in the corps’ eyes, is set in stone.”
With the corps still facing obstacles ahead, such as obtaining congressional authorization and funding, Nyhof said he’s not giving up on modifying the alignment.
“The corps has said it’s going to take an act of Congress to get this thing through, and it may well take an act of Congress to justify getting the alignment changed,” Nyhof said. “We need flood protection; we just don’t need wipe out communities along the way.”
Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column? Send an e-mail to Forum reporter Kristen Daum at firstname.lastname@example.org (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, P.O. Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107. (Please include your name, town and a phone number to reach you for verification.)