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Helmut Schmidt, Published July 16 2010

Accord and discord: Fargo-Moorhead leaders sign historic partnership amid protesters

The mayors of Fargo and Moorhead signed a historic set of agreements Thursday to officially become the local sponsors of a Red River diversion project as 60 people protested the project’s potential downstream impacts.

The agreement declares that the local governments involved will pay their share of the project – pegged at $1.27 billion.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the project, which could be the biggest ever built in North Dakota if it gets congressional approval, is years ahead of the normal timetable.

“We’ve done it because we know how to cooperate,” Voxland said. “Today is a day we can sit back and congratulate ourselves.”

“We are very, very tired of fighting floods. We need to have this process move forward,” Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. “It’s amazing to come this far.”

The Fargo City Commission chambers erupted with applause from supporters after the paperwork was signed.

But not everybody there was happy.

Protesters who feel the diversion would be bad for them brought signs and tough questions for leaders.

“How can you mitigate 17 inches of impact?” asked Steve Jacobson, a Hendrum, Minn., farmer, describing the higher downstream crests the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said could result from a diversion during floods.

“Show us how you’re going to deal with it (the greater rise in flooding),” he said. “You can give us lip service, but you’ve got to show us something.”

Mike Smart, a member of the Hendrum City Council, said that “17 inches of water will be devastating” to roads, towns and farmland.

“I guess our feeling is retention is the answer to this,” Smart said.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven told those filling the City Commission chamber that the process has been collaborative.

“This is very much a local-state-federal partnership,” said Hoeven, who added that the state is committed to providing half of the non-federal, non-Minnesota share of the project costs.

“This does include help for downstream impacts,” he said. “Our strong support extends to them.”

Walaker said sponsors have pledged $50 million to work on downstream impacts of the diversion and said that Rep Collin Peterson, D-Minn., is working to get federal funds for water retention projects.

If the project is approved by Congress, the federal government would pay about $766 million, with Fargo, Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties and the states of Minnesota and North Dakota paying $561 million.

Others close to the project said interest costs will put the final price tag of the project closer to the $1.46 billion estimate used by the corps the last few months.

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