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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 13 2010

Long-term flood protection: Millions more on the table

The case for a massive Fargo-Moorhead flood protection project is now stronger, and it might end up tens of millions of dollars cheaper for local taxpayers to build.

A new analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found annual flood damage is much higher than previously thought, the North Dakota congressional delegation announced Wednesday.

The analysis indicates the Red River diversion plan with the greatest federal benefits has tentatively jumped from being a 20,000-cubic-feet-per-second Minnesota diversion, to a Minnesota 35,000-cfs diversion.

“This analysis proves what we have all suspected – a larger flood protection system is needed to properly protect the region from devastating flooding,” the delegation said in a joint statement.

“These new numbers greatly improve the case for how important this project is – both to the region and to the federal government,” the delegation said.

The staff of Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., received the updated corps analysis Tuesday.

An e-mail shared by Dorgan’s staff said the corps was “surprised” to find the National Economic Development plan – the best deal for the nation – had nearly doubled in size.

Average annual net damages in the F-M area without a project jumped from an estimated $77 million to $177 million, the e-mail said.

That caused the benefit- to-cost ratio for the 35,000- cfs Minnesota diversion to jump from 1.55 to 2.38.

The e-mail said the benefit-to-cost ratio for the local option choice, a 35,000-cfs North Dakota diversion, hasn’t been recalculated yet, but is expected to top 2.0.

A project needs to have a benefit-to-cost ratio of at least 1.0 to be approved by Congress.

Corps project co-manager Aaron Snyder said the analysis should be ready to present to the Metro Flood Study Work Group when it meets today.

“The important thing is that (the NED) establishes the federal participation level,” said Rep Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D. “So as the corps analysis drives toward a larger plan, it means there will be more federal funds to assist in this project.”

That will make it easier for taxpayers to pay the local share, Pomeroy said.

Earlier this year, the 20,000-cfs Minnesota channel was expected to cost $871 million. If that was the NED plan, the federal government would cap its participation in any project at 65 percent, or about $566 million.

That would leave local taxpayers to pay $729 million for a $1.3 billion North Dakota diversion that was picked as the locally preferred option.

But a 35,000-cfs Minnesota diversion is expected to cost $1.14 billion. If that becomes the NED, the 65 percent federal cost share would be $743 million.

That could mean $163 million more in federal funds could potentially be available to pay for the locally preferred plan if it is approved by Congress.

“That will be really, really good news,” said Kevin Campbell,” co-chairman of the Metro Flood Study Work Group. “We were expecting something like that. … That just brings that much more money to the table.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker was cautiously optimistic.

“Right now, it’s good news,” he said.

Beyond increasing the federal cost share and making it easier for local governments to pay for the massive project, the new analysis will have other implications, a Dorgan staffer stated in an e-mail.

- The diversion should be easier to get included in the presidential budget.

- A North Dakota diversion could become easier to get approved by the Office of Management and Budget because the level of protection would be the same as the NED plan.

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