Richland-Wilkin group seeking records to bolster possible diversion lawsuit

FARGO – The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority plans to take initial steps toward a formal legal challenge of the Red River diversion project, the group announced online Thursday.

The two counties south of Fargo and Moorhead established the JPA in late February as a vehicle to eventually protest the $1.8 billion Red River diversion project in court.

In the months since, the JPA’s membership has ballooned to include 15 townships, 10 cities, three counties, two school districts and three other organizations.

The Richland-Wilkin JPA said it plans to make two open records requests in an attempt to gain more evidence that supports the group’s position.

The JPA alleges that the Fargo-Moorhead project violates state and federal laws, specifically North Dakota’s constitutional provision protecting against eminent domain for private economic gain.

“We believe that Fargo and Moorhead deserves adequate flood protection, but not at the expense of upstream farmsteads, churches, schools and communities,” the JPA said in its statement. “We intend aggressively to defend our communities with all appropriate legal action.”

The JPA’s members are from areas in Minnesota and North Dakota south of Fargo-Moorhead, where the project threatens the rural communities.

Critics of the diversion plan have long claimed that Fargo city leaders manipulated the project plans so as to result in the best benefit for Fargo – not for flood protection, but rather to maximize developable land that the diversion would eventually protect.

Aside from the claims of unlawful eminent domain, the JPA alleges that the project’s scope violates national flood control policies that prohibit development in an existing undeveloped flood plain.

The 35-mile Red River diversion channel would swoop around Fargo, West Fargo, Harwood and Horace, protecting the cities and some surrounding undeveloped farmland. As planned, it would permanently displace the communities of Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke Addition, immediately south of Fargo-Moorhead.

In all, 54,700 acres of rural land south of the project would be used for temporary storage of floodwater when the diversion is operating. The extra water could have an impact as far south as the northern end of Richland and Wilkin counties, but the most extreme water levels will be near the southern end of the diversion, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said.

For months, the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority has been studying how to reduce the project’s cost and the upstream harm on rural communities.

A recommendation of those studies’ findings will be made to the Diversion Authority board on Sept. 13, but a vote on any official alterations to the project won’t come until October.

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

The Richland-Wilkin JPA has hired a St. Cloud legal firm, Rinke Noonan, to help them in their protest.