DIVERSION DISCUSSION: Corps officials: ‘Don’t wait’ to lobby for project on Capitol Hill

FARGO – Regional officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are advising Fargo-Moorhead leaders to resume their lobbying efforts in Washington as early as this fall.

The Diversion Authority suspended its lobbyist’s contract this spring, after Minnesota’s and North Dakota’s members of Congress indicated action on the Red River diversion project was wholly unlikely this year.

During a meeting Tuesday of the authority’s Executive Leadership Council, Fargo, Moorhead and Cass County leaders asked the corps’ regional top brass for advice on how and when they should proceed with requests for authorization and federal funding.

“Visibility, timing, keeping it on the radar – those are all extremely critical,” said Michael Bart, the corps’ chief of engineering for the St. Paul District. “Don’t wait until after the election. It may be too late next March. Things happen quickly.”

District Commander Col. Michael Price said he’s already submitted his budget requests for the next fiscal year, which includes a request for continued design funding for the Red River diversion.

Price’s request will now go through intense scrutiny by White House officials before some variation of it ends up as part of the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2014.

Congress ultimately has the final say on where the money goes.

Corps officials said federal laws don’t allow them to advocate for congressional funding or even volunteer such a suggestion to members on Capitol Hill.

“We try to fight for our projects but there’s only so much we can do,” corps project manager Aaron Snyder said. “We can’t lobby for projects, but we can respond to questions.”

Price and Snyder advised local leaders to take the matter into their own hands by working with Minnesota’s and North Dakota’s members of Congress to lobby other federal lawmakers.

“Any project we’ve seen where the sponsors are more aggressive to get assistance, they tend to be more successful,” Snyder said.

Fargo-Moorhead leaders have made several trips to lobby leaders on Capitol Hill during the last three years of the project. Their most recent excursion was earlier this year.

With the Red River diversion approved by the corps, local leaders now seek congressional authorization for the project, as well as the funding they need for design and, ultimately, construction.

Without authorization though, the corps can only request funding for continued design, Price said.

“We can tell them we can’t do anything else without authorization, and that opens up the dialogue,” Price said.

Since the fall election will likely result in turnover on the Hill, local leaders asked when they should ramp up their efforts again to push for authorization.

The answer from corps officials and the Diversion Authority’s hired consultant: Don’t wait.

“Staffers tell us, there is some ground work being laid for fiscal year ’13,” said Tom Waters, the diversion’s project manager and a former corps official. “We have to make sure the interest is there, so that merits a fall visit, regardless of the circumstances.”

A Water Resource Development Act is the traditional means to get congressional authorization on civil works projects, but it’s not the only option, Waters said.

Short-term spending bills, which often include language on other non-related topics, can be opportunities, Waters said.

Congress is likely to consider such bills this fall before the election.

Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column?
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