Corps official has ‘full confidence’ F-M diversion can withstand legal challenge

FARGO – The St. Paul district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Tuesday he stands by the corps’ feasibility study for the Red River diversion project.

“We have full confidence we’re in good shape,” Col. Michael Price told Fargo-Moorhead leaders, shrugging off threats of a legal challenge.

“Our process meets all state and federal laws,” he said during a brief stop in Fargo.

A coalition of about three dozen townships, cities, counties, school districts and other stakeholders south of Fargo-Moorhead have threatened legal action over the proposed Red River diversion.

The group – led by Richland and Wilkin County leaders – specifically opposes plans to use rural land for temporary water storage in conjunction with the diversion.

The feature stands to permanently displace Oxbow, Hickson and the Bakke Addition, and affect several thousand acres of land as far south as northern Richland and Wilkin counties.

Corps engineers have said the staging area is necessary to offset downstream impacts from the project that would otherwise be felt into Canada.

Leaders of the upstream group allege the Fargo-Moorhead project violates state and federal laws, specifically environmental regulations and laws that prohibit eminent domain for private economic gain.

Corps officials said they’ve visited with their legal counsel about the feasibility study, which was completed last summer.

“We believe it’s a very robust report, and it’s a very defensible report that adheres to state and federal law,” project manager Aaron Snyder said. “The corps believes everything was done properly, and we’re moving forward.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker

Fargo-Moorhead leaders said Tuesday they’re frustrated by the protest effort because they don’t feel rural residents have acknowledged metro officials’ positive strides to reduce the project’s impacts.

“After three years of this process, they’re dancing in Wahpeton – no matter what we try to do to rest those fears,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said, referring to recent optimism expressed by the Richland-Wilkin group.

Diversion consultants, in collaboration with the corps, are reviewing several possible changes to the $1.8 billion project. A recommendation will be released Sept. 13, which could include changes to the southern alignment of the diversion that might lessen the blow on upstream communities.

“We’re not being stoic and sticking to it,” Price said. “We’re being cognizant of their needs and working through the process to figure out what’s best.”

The Richland-Wilkin group recently made an open records request to the corps, seeking more information on how the project came to be.

Price and Snyder said the request was “huge” and will likely take “too much manpower” to fulfill. Snyder said the corps plans to work with the upstream residents to narrow their request into something manageable.

“We want to make sure what they ask for, they get, and it’s reasonable on both sides,” Snyder said.

Fargo-Moorhead officials emphasized their efforts to be as open as possible throughout this process, and they urged residents not to forget the mass support for the effort.

“All the publicity surrounding the potential litigation: That’s a few hundred people or a few thousand people who don’t like the project,” Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said. “There’s a few hundred-thousand people who’ll be protected and that like the project.”

Walaker agreed.

“As far as I’m concerned, the people expect us to get this thing done,” he said. “They have faith in us. As long as we do everything that we possibly can … that’s all anybody can ask, and I feel we’re getting that.”

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