WAHPETON, N.D. – With a unanimous voice Tuesday, leaders in neighboring counties south of Fargo-Moorhead formalized their plans to fight the proposed Red River diversion.
At simultaneous but separate meetings, Wilkin and Richland county commissioners approved a joint-powers agreement that establishes an independent governing board and empowers the counties to use public resources in their collaborative efforts to halt the current project.
The votes cap off weeks of discussion between the two counties about how best to coordinate their protests and, more specifically, protect their communities from the diversion’s impacts upstream.
“Richland and Wilkin are really united in opposing any damage to our counties,” Richland County Commission Chairman Perry Miller said. “We just feel it’s unnecessary.”
Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows as many as 70 buildings – including 27 homes – in Richland and Wilkin counties could be affected by additional flooding caused from the proposed F-M diversion project.
Plans include a storage area that would temporarily hold back as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water in primarily southern Cass and Clay counties, but the impacts also extend into northern Richland and Wilkin counties.
Hoping to reduce those impacts, Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority and corps officials are studying options to minimize how often the diversion channel and its adjacent storage area would be used.
Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt reiterated again Tuesday that Diversion Authority leaders are optimistic they’ll find an amicable solution for upstream communities.
“Everybody agrees that we have a huge problem that needs to be resolved,” Berndt said, adding that the Diversion Authority will “respect whatever choices” Richland and Wilkin county leaders make in opposing the project.
In the hopes of ironing out some of the lingering disputes, though, corps officials are setting up a meeting with Richland, Wilkin, Cass and Clay county leaders, most likely in mid-March, Berndt said.
“I’m optimistic that if we continue the positive dialogue, we can reach a solution that accomplishes everybody’s objectives,” he said.
Meanwhile, the joint-powers agreement between Richland and Wilkin counties establishes a formal avenue for upstream stakeholders to protest, especially if they deem legal action is necessary down the road.
The agreement allows the joint board to “take any and all steps necessary” to protect their citizens and property, including litigation that would halt the project until the upstream impacts can be eliminated.
“We are for flood protection for the city of Fargo. We’re not against it,” Richland County Commissioner Sid Berg said, “but what they’re proposing is total devastation to our county. … It’s just not workable.”
Richland County commissioners voted 5-0 in approving the joint-powers agreement Tuesday.
Wilkin County leaders voted 3-0. Two commissioners – Stephanie Miranowski and Chairman Neal Folstad – were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, Wilkin County Auditor Wayne Bezenek said.
The joint board will be comprised of two commissioners from each county, with the potential for other representatives as more local governing boards – such as cities, townships and school districts – sign on to the agreement.
Richland County Commissioners Berg and Miller and Wilkin County Commissioners Miranowski and Lyle Hovland were appointed by their respective commissions to serve on the joint board.
Miranowski and Hovland could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The joint board’s first meeting has not yet been scheduled, but a pledge from Wilkin County guarantees at least an initial funding stream for the board’s efforts.
Earlier this month, Wilkin leaders committed $125,000 in public dollars to help the joint board actively oppose the project.
Richland County commissioners discussed pledging their own share Tuesday, which would likely at least match Wilkin County’s pledge.
Rather than committing to a specific dollar amount just yet, though, Richland leaders opted to wait for the joint board to meet first so they know what the financial needs are.
The joint board will be funded by its member entities and operate under its own budget independent of each county’s finances.
“There’s strength in numbers,” Berg said. “We have good organization, and the joint-powers agreement, that might open some eyes.”