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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.