Diversion opposition builds momentum, lays out plans for legal protest

MnDak Upstream Coalition

CHRISTINE, N.D. – With their ranks swarming, opponents of Fargo-Moorhead’s Red River diversion plans say they’re confident they can stop the $1.8 billion project either through political or legal protest.

Almost akin to a political rally, optimism exuded from the crowd of 250 rural residents and officials who gathered here Monday night to discuss their path forward in stopping the Red River diversion project.

“We know our efforts aren’t worthless,” Richland County Commissioner Sid Berg said. “I truly think we’re going to stop this. There’s no doubt in my mind: We’re going to smoke them.”

The impetus for the opposition began 20 months ago, when a drastic revision to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans shifted the diversion project’s impacts from north of Fargo-Moorhead to communities in the south.

In winter 2011, the corps added an upstream water storage area to the project that was meant to offset downstream impacts along the Red River that reached at least into Canada.

Consequently, though, the upstream storage area stands to permanently displace three communities – Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke Addition – while subjecting as much as 54,700 acres south of Fargo-Moorhead to excess water while the diversion would be in operation.

The effects stretch into northern Richland and Wilkin counties but would be most severe nearest to the southern end of the diversion project, the corps has said.

Rural residents who’ll be impacted south of Fargo-Moorhead have joined forces with their government representation with plans to legally protest the project. The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority – a formal governing body representing the opposition – has 33 member entities, with others expected to join.

“I don’t think anybody in this room would say we don’t want to see Fargo get some decent permanent flood protection,” said Perry Miller, president of the JPA and Richland County Commission chairman. “Our point is simple: We’re not going to sit idly by and allow our land to be sacrificed and used for a sump pit so the land in the diversion can be used for future development.”

Several other government leaders involved in the effort spoke Monday night in similar fashion, decrying F-M leaders for driving a message of propaganda that the Red River diversion is a certainty.

Openly opposing the formal position of his governing body, Clay County Commissioner Jon Evert told the crowd he supports the JPA’s effort to fight for an alternative solution to the current diversion plan.

“We need to continue to fight this,” Evert said. “I think we can find a way to make this project work without sacrificing our land and communities to do it. I would hope that we don’t have to make this (into a) lawsuit, but if that’s the only way to stop it, we’ll have to do that.”

Evert represents southern Clay County, which lies in the project’s upstream water storage area.

Clay County is one of the six member entities of the Diversion Authority, which oversees the Red River diversion project.

Officials with the Richland-Wilkin JPA announced late last week that they’d taken initial steps toward a formal legal challenge of the Fargo-Moorhead project.

The JPA 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.

The group also believes Minnesota’s environmental laws are on their side, since state law states permits on such a project can’t be issued if a better alternative is available, Wilkin County State’s Attorney Tim Fox said.

Fox added, though, that the JPA is prepared to file a federal lawsuit to stop the project, if necessary.

“This is not some frivolous lawsuit,” Fox said. “It’s a way to ensure that something that is wrong does not happen. … If Fargo wants to work with Richland and Wilkin counties to come to a resolution that would satisfy everyone, we’d be willing to do that. But they haven’t done that – not one bit.”

A few months ago, the Richland-Wilkin JPA hired a St. Cloud legal firm, Rinke Noonan, to represent their cause.