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Published May 29 2009

Forum editorial: In valley, ‘there is only us …’

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is in no danger of losing his 7th Congressional District seat. He can get away with intemperate remarks, especially when they are directed outside the district. Therefore, the less-than-helpful comments he made this week about the relative responsibilities of North Dakota and Minnesota in Red River Valley flood control won’t scuttle his political career. They might, however, diminish his role as an honest broker in developing a comprehensive flood-control strategy.

The congressman put the kibosh on a diversion channel in Minnesota that would direct Red River floodwaters around the metro area. “I just don’t see it,” he said, adding, “the chances of a diversion on the Minnesota side are about minus 5 percent.”

Peterson (and others on both sides of the Red River) seem to be mired in the same sort of parochialism that has stymied meaningful flood control for generations. The attitude comes right from the playbooks of local water boards and counties. It was water policy self-interest writ large. But just as the chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee must see a farming and agribusiness picture that is much broader than the 7th District, so must Peterson see valley flooding as more than the competing interests (if they are competing at all) of Moorhead and Fargo.

A few hours after Peterson made news at a meeting that was allegedly convened to bring everyone together on a flood-control plan he softened the tone of his initial remarks, but not the substance. He was buoyed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that found the cost-benefit ratio of a Red River diversion channel through Clay County was not favorable. He might be right about the political viability and financial shakiness of a diversion, but the corps’ calculations should be carefully analyzed for the possibility of flawed assumptions.

In typical politician fashion, Peterson tried to blame the media, saying his words were blown out of proportion and, “You guys are just looking for a fight.” That won’t fly. Peterson has been in the political arena and around the media long enough to know precisely when his remarks will make a headline.

No one expects a multijurisdiction, multimillion-dollar flood-control system to come easily. But it need not be made more difficult by ill-chosen and badly timed comments. Certainly there will be disagreements and heated debate. Much is at stake. But rhetoric that pits one state or community against another is counterproductive. The sentiment that must prevail as the process evolves was expressed by Sen. Byron Dorgan,

D-N.D. “There is no them, there is only us,” he said, “In the Red River Valley, there is only us.”

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.