FARGO – The Red River diversion project probably won’t be authorized by Congress until at least 2013, Diversion Authority officials say.
That reality means another anticipated delay for Fargo-Moorhead diversion plans, a consequence of the hyper-partisan deadlock in Congress during a critical election year.
“Their answer was, ‘it could happen this year, but that would be a surprise,’” Vanyo said.
The main vehicle to authorize water projects is the semi-regular Water Resources Development Act, but since it’s a presidential election year, Congress isn’t likely to introduce – let alone, take up – such hefty legislation.
North Dakota’s and Minnesota’s members of Congress indicated late last year that they were hopeful Congress would take up a WRDA bill in 2012 but there were no guarantees. (The last time Congress passed a WRDA was in 2007.)
Now, the next chance that the legislation might come before Congress will be in 2013, meaning the Red River diversion can’t be authorized or congressionally funded until at least then, Vanyo said.
Authorization and appropriations are necessary for crews to begin construction, which is currently slated to begin no sooner than spring 2014 and could take 10 years.
“There’s going to be a little bit of slowdown going to happen in 2013,” Vanyo said today, but he added that design work on the project can still continue thanks to corps funding that’s guaranteed through September 2013.
Engineers and consultants plan to spend about $30 million this year on design and engineering efforts. Then, President Obama’s 2013 budget provides $5 million in federal funding to continue the project work after Oct. 1.
Those dollars will be matched by local stakeholders, who have the option of spending more than $5 million next year and getting credited later by the corps with matching funds, Vanyo said.
Six area officials made the trek to Washington last week: Vanyo, Walaker, Clay County Administrator Brian Berg, Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral, Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt and Fargo Senior Engineer April Walker.
Over two-and-half days, Vanyo said members of the group met with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Assistant Army Secretary Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Office of Management and Budget, aides for three key congressional committees and each of the members of Congress representing North Dakota and Minnesota in the Red River Valley.
All in all, the local leaders were encouraged by their most-recent visit to Washington, with the only negative being the uncertainty of congressional authorization.
“We had some great meetings with some great people – all positive,” Walaker said earlier this week. “But nobody’s got the answer about if this is going to be authorized and, beyond that, appropriated.”
After securing the Army Corps chief’s approval in December for the three-year feasibility study, Fargo-Moorhead officials are now waiting on the necessary Record of Decision that’s due to be signed no later than April 8.
Darcy will ultimately sign off on the document, but first, it needs the approval of OMB, Vanyo said.
“That’s where it’s at right now,” he said, but added OMB officials didn’t offer any reason for local leaders to think the Record of Decision wouldn’t be coming by next month.
“Although they play their cards pretty close to the vest, they did not lead us to believe there was any gloom and doom, but we’re going to be very watchful there,” Vanyo said.
Once the Record of Decision is signed, the Fargo-Moorhead project will officially be in the hands of Congress, which will determine authorization and funding.
Local officials made the trip last week mostly to ensure the project was moving forward and that there wasn’t anything more they could do to help the process, Vanyo said.
At each of the various meetings, he said federal officials, congressional aides and members of Congress reiterated their support for the Fargo-Moorhead project.
“Every meeting we had, even with staff aides, they were well-versed on the project,” he said. “There was no need to sell them on it, no need to tell them about it – they knew all about it. It’s a pretty high-priority project for them.”
The local leaders’ trip is among the topics for discussion at today’s Diversion Authority meeting. The board gathers for its regular monthly meeting at 3:30 p.m. at Fargo City Hall, 200 3rd St. N.