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Helmut Schmidt, Published March 19 2010

Metro Flood Study Work Group backs North Dakota diversion

The Metro Flood Study Work Group voted unanimously Thursday to recommend a North Dakota diversion channel be built to protect Fargo-Moorhead.

It’s now up to the Fargo City Commission, Moorhead City Council and Cass and Clay county commissions to approve the $1.295 billion project.

Fargo and Moorhead must then tell the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by April 15 that it is the locally preferred plan for flood control.

The vote for the massive 35,000-cubic-foot-per-second diversion came without debate, even as the area faces its second major flood in two years.

“This was the first step in what I believe, and what a lot of people believe, will be a historic event for this region,” said Kevin Campbell, chairman of the Clay County Commission.

“I think we came out with the right decision,” said Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner.

North Dakota State Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, called it “a community project” because it protects large areas north and south of the metro long bedeviled by overland flooding.

Officials agreed that hammering out how to pay for the project won’t be easy.

Figures shared by Wagner show one potential cost-sharing scenario.

The diversion would get $565 million in federal aid. Minnesota would chip in $100 million. That leaves $630 million as North Dakota’s share.

Gov. John Hoeven has said the state will pay half of the local share. That would be $315 million, (though one work group member questioned if lawmakers would agree to pay that much).

Of the remaining $315 million, $100 million would come from a Fargo flood projects sales tax now in place and $10 million from Cass County’s mill levy.

The remaining $205 million could be paid with special assessment bonds.

Over 25 years, those assessments would average $203 annually for homes in the diversion protection area and $1,092 annually for commercial properties.

Wagner said the assessments could go lower depending on how much more money can be found through other sources.

“There’s going to be some financial commitments that will have to be made, but we understand that,” Wagner said. “I think over the long haul it will be money well spent.”

Fargo Commissioner Brad Wimmer predicted “there will be a lot of arm wrestling on finding the money.”

He said city officials will work with lawmakers and reach out to the community to find out what taxes are considered tolerable.

Fischer said the Legislature has already set aside $75 million for a project, and the rest can be paid over several bienniums.

“I think all the legislators by and large will come to the conclusion that it’s the right thing to do,” Fischer said.

Campbell said the states will have 10 to 12 years to come up with funding. Sales taxes or special assessments can be spread over 20 to 25 years locally, he said.

“We’re going to try to make this affordable for everybody,” he said.

The work group also authorized the corps to begin $2.6 million in hydrologic and other studies the corps said are needed for the North Dakota diversion.

Corps officials said the studies would be eligible for a 50-50 cost share; however, federal funds haven’t been found yet.

Work group members agreed to work on finding the local share of funding.

Two Minnesota diversion projects could have also been chosen, but nearly all the groups involved backed a North Dakota channel.

One of the Minnesota projects, a 20,000 cubic-feet-per-second channel, is considered by the corps to be the front-runner for being named the National Economic Development plan, identifying it as the project in the nation’s best interest. That project would receive a 65 percent federal cost share.

Any other project, if approved by Congress, would receive a lower percentage of federal funding.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583