NOTEBOOK: Oxbow’s fate, land access, community meetings, etc.

FARGO – Here’s a rundown of other worthwhile news that came out of Thursday’s Diversion Authority meetings:

Summertime will reveal Oxbow’s fate

Diversion Authority consultants said they hope to know no later than this summer whether they can save Oxbow, or whether the community will have to be bought out as currently planned to mitigate impacts from the proposed Red River diversion.

Project management team leader Tom Waters, of CH2M Hill, said the conclusion will come as part of other analyses that are ongoing in the hopes of minimizing the proposed impacts upstream of the project.

Next step in cultural survey more invasive

Army Corps officials are readying to begin phase 2 of their cultural resource surveys along the diversion channel, and that will mean more impact on some property owners.

The survey is meant to identify any historic or culturally relevant sites that the project might impact so those sites can be preserved or protected, if necessary.

While the first phase in the survey meant little intrusion, Army Corps engineers Terry Williams and Brett Coleman said that won’t be the case as crews return to specific sites for more analysis in phase 2 of the survey.

During this second phase, crews will need to dig 3-foot by 3-foot pits at least a few feet deep on previously designated sites. At each pit, crews will sift through the soil to look for anything of cultural significance. If they come across such items, it might require the digging of more pits nearby to determine the extent of the site, Coleman said.

For this process, as with previous surveys, the corps – with the help of the Cass County Joint Water Resource Board – will seek property owners’ voluntary permission to access the private sites.

However, if necessary, officials said they’re ready to go back to court to gain entry.

(When property owners refused initial right of entry previously and took their opposition to court, Cass County judges sided with the diversion officials and granted them access.)

This time around though, the access issue isn’t as relatively simple as standard right-of-entry. Because of the intrusiveness of the next step in the cultural survey, legal consultants say eminent domain provisions would apply.

“We’re potentially reaching that stage where we might be at a constitutional-level of taking,” which would require officials to pay just compensation for their use and time on the private land, said Seth Fredericks, an attorney for the Cass County joint board.

While that might be more costly for diversion officials, it also means less of a risk than if they took the right-of-entry path and a judge most-likely denied them access. That would hold up survey work for months, as the mess played out in court, Fredericks said.

Leaders also unanimously agreed that the eminent-domain approach and providing compensation for the work would be a more amicable gesture to acknowledge the disruptive impact the survey work will have on the affected property owners.

Diversion staff are devising a formula to determine how property owners would be compensated for the use of their land and the time spent on the survey work there.

Project management team on board for long haul

Diversion Authority members also unanimously voted Thursday to extend the multi-million dollar contract for the group’s project management team consultant, CH2M Hill.

The firm has been helping coordinate and manage the project since last fall, and Diversion Authority leaders glowed with praise over the work Waters and his crew have done so far.

The authority voted first to extend for five years the base contract – a master services agreement, which lays the framework for what the authority expects of CH2M Hill.

To complement that, the authority will also approve task orders that detail specific work the firm must do and at what cost to the authority it will come.

For instance, at Thursday’s meeting, authority members also approved a $3.5 million task order that will continue CH2M Hill’s current efforts on the project through Sept. 30. As each task order expires, authority members can approve new ones, as necessary.

“It’s critically important we have this support for the activities and decisions in the upcoming months,” Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said in asking for the contract extension.

Berndt said CH2M Hill’s efforts have already paid for themselves. With the group’s help, staff and consultants have designated at least $100 million in cost-cutting measures for the project, such as by designing a more efficient path at the northern end of the channel.

Corps set to talk with Richland, Wilkin leaders

Officials with the Diversion Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan to meet with Richland and Wilkin county leaders later this month.

The gathering is meant to clear the air with the upstream counties, who’ve banded together to halt the project until it won’t negatively affect them. Corps officials hope to answer questions Richland and Wilkin leaders still have about the project’s impacts.

The meeting is set for 7 p.m. March 19 at the student center of the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. It is open to the public.

Other public meetings planned upstream

Diversion officials and consultants have wrapped up their small-group meetings with civic leaders south of Fargo-Moorhead, and they’re now shooting for community meetings later this month and into the spring.

Here’s the tentative schedule so far. Exact locations have not yet been determined, and we’ll publish more information as it’s made available.

  • March 27: Oxbow residents
  • March 29: Bakke and Hickson residents
  • April 3: Oxbow business community
  • April 2-13: Comstock residents
  • TBD: Christine residents and agricultural township residents.

Prioritizing acquisitions

While officials are developing their specific plan to buyout necessary properties, Fargo senior engineer April Walker offered some valuable perspective affected landowners should consider:

“Even if we have authorization, we’re going to need a staged plan for acquisition,” she said. “Once we’re authorized, everybody and anybody who will be acquired cannot expect to be bought out right away; we can’t afford that.”

Instead, Diversion Authority consultants will prioritize all the buyouts based on available funding and those locations that are needed first for construction, which will begin at the northern end of the channel and progress southward. The process to acquire all the necessary land could take eight years, Walker said.

Keep in mind, though, this applies for the average buyout.

Officials are developing specific criteria for a “hardship policy,” which would apply a shorter time frame for unique circumstances where landowners are already negatively affected by the possibility of the project.