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Patrick Springer, Published May 23 2010

Red River Valley water boards nearing agreement

Red River Valley water boards in North Dakota and Minnesota appear close to reaching a joint powers agreement to cooperatively manage flood-control projects.

The proposed agreement was approved last week by Minnesota’s Red River Watershed Management Board. North Dakota’s Red River Joint Water Resource District is expected to give its OK this week.

The aim of the agreement is to enable the two states’ boards to better set project priorities and coordinate flood-retention efforts in the Red River Valley.

Chairmen of the two joint state water boards said they have worked cooperatively in the past, but a joint powers agreement will allow them to better coordinate technical expertise and funding for retention projects to mitigate flooding.

“We hope to smooth out permitting projects and secure federal funds,” said Jim Lyons, chairman of the North Dakota Red River Joint Water Resource District, adding the pact would not create another layer of government.

Meanwhile, the governors of the two states continue their talks over how to divide the states’ share of funding for a diversion channel to protect Fargo-Moorhead against severe flooding.

Earlier analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers calculated that 90 percent of the benefits of a diversion would fall on the North Dakota side of the Red River, with 10 percent in Minnesota.

That assessment, however, was based on an initial determination that the most cost-effective flood-protection project would be a relatively small diversion channel in Minnesota.

Subsequent study, according to figures released Friday by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has shown that a Minnesota diversion twice as large as first determined could be the best national economic investment.

The latest figures conclude that a diversion capable of handling 40,000 cubic feet per second of water would prevent annual flood damages of $195.9 million.

The locally preferred option, a North Dakota channel capable of diverting 35,000 cubic feet per second, now is estimated to cost $1.462 billion, with a non-federal share of $626 million, Dorgan said.

Aaron Snyder, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said analysts haven’t yet calculated the relative benefits for the two states of bigger diversions that now are showing the most favorable cost-benefit ratios.

The benefit split between North Dakota and Minnesota will be an important guidepost in the negotiations between the two states in sharing costs for the project.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven first asked Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to contribute $200 million toward the project. In response, Pawlenty asked North Dakota to make its case for the economic benefits Minnesota would receive from the project.

In the most recent discussions, North Dakota has proposed that Minnesota contribute $100 million toward a diversion project, with another $40 million to $50 million to help address downstream impacts.

Minnesota communities, including Hendrum and Halstad, are concerned that a diversion to protect Fargo-Moorhead would increase downstream river levels during severe floods.

Lance Gaebe, an aide for Hoeven, is involved in the discussions between governors. He said the cost-sharing talks are somewhat hampered until the project is identified and costs are known.

In the discussions, Gaebe has pointed out that Moorhead would have to spend $225 million to remove houses and build dikes in flood-prone areas without a diversion project.

Also, he said, an estimated 15,000 and 18,000 residents of northwest Minnesota, mostly in Clay and Becker counties, work in Fargo or Cass County. Thus, if their worksites were flooded, Minnesota would sustain a significant economic loss, Gaebe said.

“Minnesota continues to work with the Corps of Engineers and the local sponsors to develop a project that can address the needs of the communities and downstream interests,” said Brian McClung, Pawlenty’s spokesman.

Those ongoing talks will resume Wednesday when the Metro Flood Study Work Group meets, the same day North Dakota’s water board will vote on the joint powers agreement with Minnesota.

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