DIVERSION DISCUSSION: North Dakota’s Democratic candidates weigh in on F-M project

FARGO – Both of North Dakota’s political parties are gathering this month to select their slate of candidates in the state’s key races this year.

The 2012 election in November will decide North Dakota’s state and federal leadership for the next few years. Those individuals will also play a major role in future efforts for the Red River diversion project.

With the Democrats gathering in Grand Forks this weekend, I sat down with their gubernatorial, House and Senate candidates to get their thoughts on the current plans.

Next week, I’ll share the Republican candidates’ positions.

And, Minnesota readers: Don’t worry, as your political parties get ramped up in the months ahead – I’ll have them weigh in, too.

Candidate for governor

On the current plan:

Fargo needs permanent flood control and I believe the diversion is the option we need to have.

But I think there’s still room to try and make sure it has less impact upstream, and I think the state has a role in retention, basin-wide retention that can keep water out of the system at key times.

Farmers in certain portions of the river basins have done that. I think that’s where the state can do some appropriating.

There’s still federal money involved. I understand (Minnesota Rep.) Collin Peterson is involved in that too, which is great – but I think we still need to make sure everyone’s voice is heard on either side of the diversion.

Worst-case scenario: If the project can’t be changed to alleviate the upstream impacts, would you support it?

I’d still have to look at it. Obviously, people can’t throw sandbags every year. That’s not permanent flood control. I’m hopeful that we can reduce those impacts, because there are people on both sides.

Fargo is our largest city and important for our economy. At the end of the day they have to have the peace of mind for their quality of life, but I think we can accomplish both.

How much state funding would you support spending for the project?

It really depends on the staging of it, because it’s a multi-year project and it’s going to cross over several sessions and several bienniums.

It’s premature to say, this or that. Those numbers are bound to change with inflation and everything that goes into it.

The state obviously has a role, and that’s why we need to manage our revenues in the west and make sure we’re doing things correctly, because we have to balance those needs across every region.

How do you balance the state’s funding needs, with Fargo needing flood protection and the infrastructure demands in the Oil Patch?

Fargo’s made good strides in flood protection outside of the diversion, and I think you need to keep making those incremental steps as well to ensure less severe flooding.

On the money that comes from the west: We can’t not take care of the impact first. That need is absolutely immediate. It’s more than immediate, the damage is done. So they should have first dibs on the money that actually came from their backyard, and I think we can do that. It’s going to take some active leadership to give these communities a chance to catch up.

Candidate for U.S. House

On the current plan:

Pam Gulleson

I’m very supportive of the Red River diversion project. I think it’s important that we protect the city of Fargo.

The one part of this I’m concerned about yet is the design. I think we need to make sure that we’re not impacting those farms and those homes and those communities upstream. We need to reduce those impacts as much as possible.

That’s going to be the work of the (Army Corps of Engineers) along with those community leaders and some of the water board members over the next year as they finalize that design.

Worst-case scenario: If the project can’t be changed to alleviate the upstream impacts, would you support it?

I think the reality is they can change it. They are in the design phase. This is when you work out those things.

Part of this, is they’re going to be looking for available retention, some of those ways to divert some of that water away and then, I think, that the city of Fargo has a greater obligation, as well, to hold more of the water within the community.

What they’re doing is increasing the dike level and they’re adding more capacity in town to hold water. I think that’s all really important. Things they’re doing now on the mitigation side, which is going to increase their capacity to be able to manage water in town. That’s an important component in this.

I think as they work alongside the corps, we’re going to make some progress on this design so we can reduce those impacts upstream, which is really critical. … I think Fargo deserves flood protection. I think it’s important for the community. This is a longterm project. This isn’t going to be solved in 5 years – but in 10 years, I’m hoping to see they’re well on their way to a completed project.

If elected to Congress, how would you advocate for the dollars needed to build the project?

You continue to work with the corps. … I would work on behalf of the state of North Dakota to get the project funded and authorized in Congress. These are no small tasks.

We know we’re facing tremendous challenges, with the budget – and so it’s going to be a request that has to be defensible, has to be one where you can make the case of why it’s so important, how we save money over what we’re spending now to protect these cities in emergency states.

That’s all part of what I’ll do as a leader and continue to advocate. I’ll work with the corps to make sure those upstream communities are not impacted.

All of us recognize and completely understand their concerns. These are homes that they’ve had in their family for generations and generations, and I understand their concerns and I think they’re valid.

If Congress continues its ban on earmarks, how would you see dollars secured for the project?

The goal would be to have the corps put it in as part of their budget. Then the project becomes part of the ones the corps funds and it takes it out of being an earmark.

They have a set number of projects they move forward and work on, and that’s what you’re hoping for and for the administration to keep it in their budget as well.

Because of where we’re at with the national budget, it’s going to be harder. Nobody is questioning it’s going to be a challenge to get a big, big project like this funded.

It’s going to take everybody working together. It’s going to take the North Dakota and Minnesota delegations, as well as us working with the administration and the corps and to ensure they continue to include it in their budgets.

Candidate for U.S. Senate

On the current plan:

Heidi Heitkamp

I think we absolutely need a diversion. Fargo is a huge economic engine for the entire state. … We can’t ignore any corner of North Dakota, and we know that one of the biggest threats to economic security in the Fargo-Moorhead area is threats of flooding. So with that said, we absolutely need to have a diversion.

But we need to be very, very sensitive to the rights of everyone in making these determinations and these decisions. I think the city of Fargo along with the regional communities are continuing to have discussions on how this is going to be done. I think that’s where the discussion needs to be right now: neighbor to neighbor, community to community – talking about how they’re going to make that work.

But I have a great deal of sympathy for people in the Oxbow area, people who can’t sell their homes. Something needs to be done to solve those problems for those injured people.

You look what happened in Grand Forks. We were able to do this in Grand Forks and make good choices and come out with an absolutely great outcome. It didn’t mean we didn’t have struggles and conflicts, but they see their way through. There’s a path forward. The first report card is making sure those decisions stay local, city to city and neighbor to neighbor

With the respect that when you’re talking about someone else’s property, you gotta to think about it as if it were your own.

Worst-case scenario: if the project can’t be changed to alleviate the upstream impacts, would you support it?

I never give up, and my whole career has been one of negotiating: negotiating the tobacco settlement, negotiating tax agreements. I believe that you can reach accommodation, so I’m not willing to accept your premise that this can’t be solved. I think it can.

If elected to Congress, how would you advocate for the dollars needed to build the project?

It’s up to the local people and the state people to determine what that diversion is going to look like, and then we take a look at what we can afford, what we can basically pursue in terms of federal funding.

The Obama budget showed, I think, a commitment to the Fargo diversion. That was an absolute positive sign. … But we need to send someone to Washington, D.C., who’s going to make the case that this is a natural disaster-impacted area. We always help people in tough times and if they sense that, rather than dealing with the costs of a flood, that we prevent that flood – and that’s a good investment for the United States of America.

We start talking about investments, we start talking about creative ways to fund it, we start talking about how it is that you take this vibrant city of fargo and if you don’t protect fargo – what that means to the overall national economy. We all matter, every part of North Dakota matters, and certainly Fargo matters to the national economy.

If Congress continues its ban on earmarks, how would you see dollars secured for the project?

You’ve got to deal with the people who are responsible for the project, and I believe at this point, I think it’s still the Army Corps of Engineers, so you need to maintain that on their list of priorities.

I think one bit of good news that North Dakotans have gotten is this project is huge. It’s a very high priority project on the army corps of engineers’ list. The next congressman, the next United States senator is going to have to maintain that.

I think (North Dakota Sen.) Kent Conrad has laid an incredible foundation, working with his colleagues – educating them about what the needs are. We also have the opportunity to work with the senators from across the river. … We’ve doubled up our team.

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 kdaum@forumcomm.com (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, P.O. Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107.
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