UPDATED: N.D. lawmakers hear about F-M diversion plans, concerns

FARGO – North Dakota lawmakers got a crash course today on the Red River diversion project, the metrowide need for it and the emotional debate over its controversial feature, which threatens residents south of Fargo-Moorhead.

About 75 officials and rural residents attended Thursday’s field hearing of the Water-Related Topics Overview Committee, an interim board of the North Dakota Legislature.

During the daylong meeting, Fargo-area leaders, consultants and engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified for several hours and answered questions about the proposed diversion.

Two upstream leaders spoke on behalf of the dozen or so opponents who were also present Thursday. They told state lawmakers about their concerns over the project’s upstream impacts and alternative solutions they support.

The hearing was a chance for North Dakota lawmakers to get up-to-speed on the project and hear information that could potentially influence future appropriations.

Questions from lawmakers Thursday focused on the consequences and cost of the $1.8 billion project. Under current funding formulas, the state could be on the hook for a half-billion dollars.

“We’re all about the money here,” said House Majority Leader Al Carlson, of Fargo. “It’s nice if we understand what obligations we have as this moves forward. … We’re just trying to figure out the mix of how the money is going to be used or requested from the state.”

Gregg Thielman, an engineer with the Houston-Moore Group, testifies Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Fargo before an interim committee of the North Dakota Legislature about basic hydrology terms and what studies have been done on the Fargo-Moorhead area, in relation to the Red River diversion project. About 75 officials and area residents attended the Legislature's Water-Related Topics Overview Committee hearing to learn more about the Red River diversion project and other Fargo-area flood protection efforts. Kristen M. Daum / The Forum.

Corps project managers Brett Coleman and Terry Williams reviewed the corps’ process of how officials ultimately chose a North Dakota diversion as the project to pursue.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo both reiterated how the Red River diversion plan is the preferred solution to overcome the region’s flood problems.

“Other alternatives have been studied, and we always come back that the diversion is the best solution,” Vanyo said. “There is no such thing as: Build a diversion and no one will have a negative impact. … You have to mitigate those, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Walaker also told lawmakers about his city’s two-part effort to shore up flood protection, which will require more state aid than originally planned.

The F-M diversion is “our No. 1 project,” Walaker said, but he also explained Fargo’s goal to build up inner-city protection to 42.5 feet. That goal could take five years to complete and cost $247 million, completely separate from the proposed $1.8 billion diversion.

The state Legislature has already appropriated $75 million toward Fargo-area flood protection since 2009. Local officials plan to seek potentially hundreds of millions of dollars more from the state to help pay for the necessary projects.

“You’re going to get more information than one can absorb in two hours,” Walaker said at the start of the hearing. “We really do appreciate this opportunity to move forward.”

“The diversion has been a well-thought out process, no matter what you hear,” Walaker added in clear reference to the opponents in the audience.

Residents south of Fargo-Moorhead stand in objection not to the diversion channel itself, but to a dam feature that will consequently bring water on their communities.

A water storage component south of the proposed diversion channel will displace three communities – Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke Addition – and affect potentially hundreds of other residents as far south as Richland and Wilkin counties. (The land could still be farmed, however.)

The temporary storage feature would back up as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water during times of high flood. It’s meant to help the water to flow into the diversion channel in a controlled manner.

The water storage area – which covers more than 33,900 acres – was added to the project in fall 2010 in order to offset higher water levels the diversion would cause north of Fargo-Moorhead.

Residents affected by the upstream staging area have been actively protesting for months, aiming to convince Diversion Authority leaders and the Army Corps to alter the project and prevent impacts to their communities.

Walcott Township Chairman Craig Hertsgaard asked state lawmakers Thursday to put conditions on any future state dollars that are allocated toward the diversion project.

“It’s possible and plausible to pursue a project that helps – not harms – the region,” Hertsgaard said.

North Dakota House Majority Leader Al Carlson, right, listens as Walcott Township Chairman Craig Hertsgaard shows a map of the previously proposed alignments for the Red River diversion project, during a field hearing Thursday, April 19, 2012 of the Legislature's Water-Related Topics Overview Committee in Fargo. Hertsgaard's community and others south of Fargo-Moorhead stand to be affected by upstream water storage associated with the diversion channel. Kristen M. Daum / The Forum

Hertsgaard and a coalition of upstream stakeholders want basinwide retention for the Red River Valley, which could reduce flood impacts beyond just the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The residents say strategic pockets of retention would negate the need for the proposed water storage area that threatens their homes and land.

With the project having received final approval earlier this month, Diversion Authority leaders plan to independently study ways to reduce the need for the storage area.

However, Army Corps engineers maintain the diversion project cannot be accomplished without the retention component offsetting downstream impacts.

Williams explained the corps’ efforts to increase Red River flows through downtown Fargo-Moorhead, which could help mitigate upstream impacts by allowing the diversion to operate less frequently.

The Diversion Authority is working off a timeline of starting construction on the diversion project in spring 2014. However, construction depends on congressional authorization and appropriations, which they don’t expect to receive until at least next year.

Also during this morning’s testimony, chief executives with Microsoft, Sanford Health and Blue Cross Blue Shield addressed the North Dakota lawmakers about the need for permanent flood protection for Fargo-Moorhead and how flood disasters disrupt the local economy and major business operations here.

The three corporations all have offices in Fargo and employ thousands of area residents.

Posted: 11:20 a.m. Updated 2:15 p.m. and 4:10 p.m.

9 thoughts on “UPDATED: N.D. lawmakers hear about F-M diversion plans, concerns

  1. I think if fargo moorhead wants the damn diversion, they should pay for. why should every one in the state of ND have to help cover the cost. And if they can’t afford it maybe they shouldn’t be there.

  2. Have they ever answered the question of why Fargo needs a diversion if they are going to protect the city to 42.5 ft anyways?? The river has never gotten even to 42 ft so I don’t see the purpose of both other than because they can.

  3. Why does nobody ever discuss the Minnesota option, which is 1 billion dollars cheaper, instead of “the locally preferred option”. Who are the locals that prefer this option. Is it the fargo city commission that can’t see their pension fund will soon be broke? I don’t think the local taxpayers would object to saving 1 billion dollars. Let’s take a vote and see what the locally preferred option is. I would bet 100 to 1 it would be DO NOTHING and save 2 billion dollars!!!

  4. You can not fool Mother Nature. To spend this much money on something THAT MAY NEVER HAPPEN is totally ridiculous. I certainly do not want a disaster such as a 500 year flood to happen – but if it does – we will deal with it – as Grand Forks and Minot did. Being protected to 42 feet should be enough. Whenever I see pictures of the destruction of all the tornadoes that have been happening recently, as well as earthquakes and fires – what is to keep Fargo from being hit by a tornado? How is this “dam” diversion going to help then?

  5. The article talkes about upstream “residents” opposing the plan to dam the rivers.. In fact Perry Miller, Chairman of the Richland County Commission, and Chairman of the Joint Powers Authority, a legal entitty formed by Richland County, ND and Wilkin County, Mn, spoke in opposition. He listed off the member townships, cities and school districts from 4 different counties that have joined the Joint Powers Authority and pledge financial support. Commissioner Miller stated this growing organization amounts to a substantial voting bloc in North Dakota. These political entities that have pledged support, even financial support to stop the construction of the dams. I would have thought an unbaised reporter would have deemed these items significant enough to include in the article.

  6. Personally Identify three private corporations who’s executives speak in favor of the dams – but describe the Chairman of the Richland County Commission and Chairman of the Richland-Wilin Joint Powers Authority as an anonymous resident. Is it any wonder that upstream residents distrust the reporting on this issue?

  7. Kristin,
    I totally agree with Skeptical. Why would Perry Miller not be mentioned? The Joint Powers group is VERY news worthy.

  8. Pingback: DIVERSION DISCUSSION: Major businesses describe economic impact of F-M flooding | Diversion Discussion

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