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Helmut Schmidt, Published June 29 2010

Case made in Washington for Red River diversion

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Supporters of a plan to build a $1.46 billion Red River diversion heard mixed messages at two Monday hearings.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leaders sounded much in support of the project, but a representative from the Office of Management and Budget was much more cautious, saying it was “far too early” in the budget process to make any promises.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who moderated the meetings sponsored by North Dakota’s congressional delegation, said it was critical to the future of the project to get it into President Barack Obama’s budget.

There is a $67 billion backlog of water projects and just $5 billion to spend on them in the coming year, Dorgan said.

Relying on annual congressional action for the $825 million federal share of the project would not give it “a ghost of a chance,” he said.

Corps commander Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp said the corps is committed to the project.

“We stand with you. There is a better solution. You cannot keep doing what you do every year,” Antwerp said. “Let’s get to the right solution here.”

But Sally Ericsson, associate director of natural resources, energy and science for OMB, called the approval time frame “very aggressive,” and cautioned that there are other needs to balance in the budget.

“We’re in a very tough fiscal situation,” Ericsson said. “You have timing challenges … There’s authorization issues as well as appropriation issues,” she said.

At the table for the meetings were North Dakota Democrats Sen. Kent Conrad and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Minnesota Democrats Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and Rep. Collin Peterson, Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and John Hoeven of North Dakota, and representatives of Fargo, Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties.

Conrad said not doing anything to protect Fargo-Moorhead was a “potential risk to taxpayers.”

He estimated that if Fargo-Moorhead were lost to a flood, it would require $8 billion to replace lost infrastructure.

But Conrad added that there are enormous pressures to make dramatic cuts in the federal budget.

“Getting this project funded is going to be a major challenge. … I think we’ve got a very good case to make, but we’re making it at a very difficult time,” Conrad said.

Aaron Snyder, the corps project co-manager, said there is a potential for a large loss of life – perhaps 600 people – if there wasn’t an evacuation in a 500-year flood.

Pomeroy said the 200,000 residents of the Fargo-Moorhead area have protection to a 50-year flood level.

“This is about a completely unacceptable risk of exposure,” Pomeroy said.

“This just can’t continue like that with the risk to these two major cities,” Klobuchar said. “The urgency is here, and we must get this done.”

The corps estimates a 100-year flood on the Red would be 42.6 feet in Fargo. A 500-year flood would be about 46.7 feet.

The spring of 2009’s record flood reached 40.82 feet in Fargo.

Between 1990 and 2010, more than $193 million has been spent on flood control measures – including buyouts and infrastructure improvements – in Fargo, Moorhead and Cass and Clay counties, according to figures presented by Fargo Senior Engineer April Walker.

She said the metro has had 10 major floods since 1969 and that officials are worried about “flood fatigue.” Someday there may be too much water and not enough volunteers.

“There is an event we will not win,” Walker said.

Hoeven praised the local leaders and the cooperation between North Dakota and Minnesota.

“We’ve just absolutely got to keep this moving,” he said.

“We hope this thing will move forward,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “The bottom line is, we’d like to turn some dirt in 2012. … People are tired. We need another break.”

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, was invited to the second meeting but did not arrive until it was nearly adjourned.

“The administration appreciates how serious the project is,” Orszag said.

Klobuchar reminded him that parts of the F-M area came close to being inundated this spring.

“We believe the sooner we get this done, the better. Because every year is another risk,” she said.


Diversion timeline

Timeline for getting a North Dakota diversion of the Red River approved by Congress:

July: Independent external peer review of the project to be completed.

July 15: Local sponsors for diversion named. Participants present documents to the corps declaring they have the finances available to pay the local share of the cost of the project.

Aug. 9: Public review period complete for the project’s draft feasibility report and the environmental impact statement.

October 2010: Civil Works review board briefing in Washington (approval by the corps’ headquarters).

October 2010: Final public meetings by the corps in the Fargo-Moorhead area on the final design of the project.

November 2010: Approve agreement to allow corps to do interim project design.

December 2010. Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp, commanding general of the corps, will be asked to approve the plan. The project then goes to the Office of Management and Budget for potential inclusion in the president’s budget and is also presented to Congress for approval.

January 2011: Begin drawing up plans and specifications.

April 2012: If the project is authorized and funded, construction may begin. Construction of a 36-mile North Dakota diversion channel will take 8½ years, the corps estimates.

Source: Aaron Snyder, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers


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