F-M diversion project a work in progress

Kristen M. Daum - Reporter - The Forum

FARGO – Even before the historic flood of 2009, Fargo-Moorhead residents knew they needed a permanent solution to the area’s flood problems.

The record-level events of 2009, 2010 and 2011 only solidified that consensus, and community leaders continue making strides this year to make that dream a reality.

But the plans to build a $1.78 billion Red River diversion don’t come without significant obstacles: federal red tape, passionate opposition and undetermined funding sources, to name a few.

After working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for three years on a feasibility study, Fargo-Moorhead officials are moving forward on their chosen plan to build a 35-mile-long, half-mile-wide diversion channel.

Of first concern, though: The channel by itself would’ve created consequences on the Red River north of Fargo-Moorhead all the way to Canada.

So, to prevent an international dispute, corps engineers designed elements to the project that would shift the impacts upstream.

The corps proposes a 200,000- acre-feet storage area that they say would be used to hold back excess water only in times of severe flooding.

But the corps’ solution sparked a slew of new complications for the project, including the potential to destroy whole communities south of Fargo-Moorhead.

The upstream storage area could hold as much as 8 feet of water in some places, which would require towns like Oxbow and Hickson to be bought out completely.

That prospect has hundreds of rural residents clamoring for changes to the project, as they foresee a not-so-distant future when their livelihoods could be uprooted against their will.

The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority – a governing body that’s comprised of local city, county and water board leaders – has vowed to seek alternatives that would ease the proposed impacts and, they hope, prevent such an outcome.

Several studies are under way and slated to wrap up as early as this summer, including a proposal to increase the allowable river flows through Fargo-Moorhead.

That solution, encouraged by many local leaders, would reduce how often the diversion would need to be used, easing the impact on upstream communities.

Meanwhile, Diversion Authority officials and engineers with the corps continue to urge patience among area residents who seek definitive solutions about the final project and the proposed timeline.

Local leaders have cleared several hurdles in the process so far, but Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker is among the first to caution that the project is far from inevitable.

In December, the top chief at the Army Corps of Engineers signed off on a final feasibility study, and officials expect the chief will also sign a “record of decision” in April – milestones that allow Congress to consider the project yet this year.

Congress must both authorize and fund the F-M diversion before any buyouts or construction could begin.

That process might start in a year or later, depending on how swiftly Congress acts on the proposal.

At the earliest, the diversion could be complete by 2021, and a lot can happen in the nine years until then.

During that time, Diversion Authority officials said they hope to finalize their funding sources to pay for the $1.78 billion project, as well as the operating and maintenance costs that will require at least $3.6 million each year.

The federal government, the states of North Dakota and Minnesota, Cass County and Fargo are all sharing in the cost of the project to varying degrees.

Each government entity has different options to fund its share, but overall, very few specific plans exist to guarantee the project’s funding.

With the creation of the Diversion Authority last year, officials hope the board will allow for a more streamlined approach to handling the finances of the project, including funding sources.

In the interim, rural residents upstream have vowed to fight the project, potentially in the courts.

Fargo-Moorhead officials say they empathize with the residents, but they also stress that despite their best efforts, no project of this magnitude is without impacts.

Nearly 6,900 acres of prime farmland will be taken out of operation just for the land needed to construct the channel.

In all, the proposed channel has a footprint of more than 8,000 acres, not including the area that will be used for temporary water storage.

Kristen Daum reports for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.