Congress could take up F-M diversion project next year but hurdles remain

FARGO – The fate of the Red River diversion project shifts to the hands of Congress now that top leadership at the Army Corps of Engineers has approved a three-year feasibility study.

The long-awaited signature from Acting Corps Chief Maj. Gen. Merdith W.B. Temple came Monday and was announced Tuesday, clearing a key hurdle that allows Congress to consider the project as early as next year.

Diversion Authority officials had expected a signed chief’s report before year’s end, but were still excited on Tuesday.

“It’s Christmas, right?” joked Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who sits on the authority board.

Walaker and other area leaders emphasized the significance of this “major milestone.”

“Without a chief’s report, we don’t have anything,” Walaker said. “We can’t expect Congress to react to anything without a chief’s report.”

More hurdles lie ahead, some of which could crimp local leaders’ plans to move forward sooner rather than later.

The next procedural step requires corps leaders to sign off on a “record of decision” related to the project’s environmental impacts. Officials expect that to be signed in the spring.

In order for any construction to begin on the diversion channel, Congress must authorize and fund the $1.8 billion project, half of which will be paid for by local and state governments.

Those steps can take years – if they come at all – due to the limited dollars available and the lengthy backlog of corps projects vying for federal funding.

Congressional leaders from North Dakota and Minnesota vowed Tuesday to continue lobbying their colleagues to support the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project.

North Dakota Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad said the project’s long-term savings to public resources and its positive economic impact to the Red River Valley are reasons it should attract support from other members of Congress.

“If we have a catastrophic flood, the cost would be in the range of $10 billion,” Conrad said. “Spending $800 million (in federal dollars) to be prepared to prevent a loss of $10 billion is money well-spent.”

Republican Rep. Rick Berg, who lives in Fargo, said cost-efficient projects, such as the F-M diversion should take precedence over others as Congress faces spending cuts.

“It’s real clear we need to set priorities,” Berg said. “The economic impact of protecting small businesses and jobs up and down the valley are critical, so I think my colleagues will look as favorably on this as they do other flood-control projects.”

Officials realize the congressional red tape won’t be easy hurdles to overcome.

“It’s going to be hard work to get it, particularly with the debt and deficit, but it’s a priority,” said North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven.

Walaker said Tuesday he’s more optimistic with the signed chief’s report in hand, but he realizes the diversion isn’t yet an inevitability.

“I understand all the realities,” he said. “There’s some real difficulties in Congress.”

Lawmakers said the diversion project would likely be authorized through a Water Resources Development Act, routine legislation Congress uses to give the green-light on authorized civil works projects.

Last year’s water resources bill was delayed, but Conrad said he’s hopeful Congress will act on one next year.

If the diversion is authorized as an official project, Minnesota and North Dakota lawmakers said they’ll then work to get the project funded through the corps’ budget for fiscal year 2013, which begins Sept. 1.

The first appropriation would be around $30 million, officials said.

“Next fall would be the time for getting the appropriation,” Conrad said. “This is not something that’s done in one fell swoop, it’s not overnight; it’s done over a period of years.”

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