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Patrick Springer, Published April 29 2010

Study of North Dakota-side diversion gets OK

The quest for a North Dakota diversion channel to protect Fargo-Moorhead against severe flooding has cleared an important procedural hurdle.

A top federal official Wednesday gave the OK to study the locally preferred option for permanent flood protection in Fargo-Moorhead, a 36-mile diversion channel in North Dakota.

The decision, announced Wednesday by the North Dakota congressional delegation, means efforts to provide 500-year flood protection for the metro area remain on track and on schedule, said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

“This is another very positive step forward,” Dorgan told The Forum. “This is one of those matters that could have slowed it down or stopped it altogether.”

Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, granted an exception in federal policy to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to study the North Dakota diversion.

Darcy, who visited Fargo-Moorhead on Sunday at Dorgan’s request and toured flood-prone areas, concluded the locally preferred plan “would significantly reduce flood damages, the risk of loss of life, and the need for emergency flood fighting measures.”

Local governments favor a channel on the North Dakota side of the Red River capable of diverting 35,000 cubic feet per second of water – the plan Darcy endorsed for study, which keeps the project moving forward.

National economic development criteria and the Army Corps of Engineers, however, favor a smaller diversion on the Minnesota side of the river capable of handling 20,000 cubic feet per second of water – the plan that would have been studied without the exception Darcy granted.

Among the benefits of the locally preferred plan over the plan favored by national economic benchmarks, as highlighted in Darcy’s memorandum:

E Reduces average annual damages of about $17 million more than the smaller Minnesota diversion.

E Removes about 80 square miles from the 100-year flood plan, about 50 square miles more than the smaller Minnesota diversion.

E Benefits about 6,625 more people and protects about 3,100 more structures.

Local officials applauded Darcy’s decision.

“It’s about time we got some good news on this project,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “I’m ecstatic. That’s the best news I’ve heard.”

Kevin Campbell, chairman of the Clay County Commission and co-chairman of the task force of local leaders, said Darcy’s prompt decision, which might not have come until May 10, confirms the merits of the locally preferred plan.

“We really had everything in order for her to make that decision so quickly,” he said.

If the locally preferred plan ultimately is built, however, the local share of the $1.3 billion project would be significantly more expensive.

As proposed, the estimated federal share – for either option – is $505.9 million, according to Darcy’s figures. If the locally preferred plan is built, the non-federal share would be about $573.5 million, compared to about $272.4 million under the corps’ preferred plan.

“We have a long road to go in terms of getting this project completed,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. Darcy’s decision means that studies on the project can begin immediately. “That’s extremely important news for the project.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522