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Dave Roepke, Published August 19 2010

Talks with diversion critics proposed

Facing the possibility of a 45-day delay in the study of the proposed $1.5 billion flood diversion, proponents said Wednesday they will step up efforts to engage critics of the project.

Tim Mahoney, the Fargo city commissioner who is co-chairman of the Metro Flood Study Work Group, said he’d like the group’s members to split into small groups to visit cities that would see the downstream effects of the project.

“I think we need to sit down and talk to people. I think that can solve a lot of problems,” Mahoney said. “It has to be a project we kind of agree on.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said he’d support more attempts to pitch the diversion’s benefits to the region, but he worries that after holding, by his count, between 60 and 80 meetings on the proposal, it might be a fruitless endeavor.

“It sounds like a good idea, and we’ll try it. But is it going to do any good?” Walaker said. “To stay optimistic is difficult this week.”

Walaker likened negative reaction about the project to town hall meetings held last summer on health care legislation and said, “The control of the outrage may be difficult.”

“Are they game breakers? It’s a possibility, it’s a real possibility,” he said of the opposition to the diversion.

Opponents have been too “short-sighted” about how a catastrophic flood in the metro area would affect them, Walaker said.

“They don’t fully understand the importance of Fargo. It’s hard for me to say that, but they don’t,” he said.

Aaron Snyder, the co-manager of the project for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, told The Forum on Tuesday that the corps will decide in a week if written opposition to the proposal and additional study yet needed may force a delay.

Walaker said Wednesday that the corps is considering a 45-day delay and told metro officials earlier this week. He said he’s scheduled a teleconference with corps officials this afternoon to discuss the issue.

Those who’ve sought to delay the project, such as Curt Johannsen, mayor of Hendrum, Minn., said they were encouraged that the corps is considering dialing back its schedule.

Officials in Hendrum and many other communities downstream from Fargo-Moorhead are worried by corps projections that the diversion would heighten crests in their towns. They want downstream efforts to mitigate the effects added to the project.

“We just thought we were always getting a lot of lip service. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘Trust us,’ ” Johannsen said.

A group of downstream cities will meet Tuesday in Hendrum to consider a joint powers agreement to share the costs of a lawyer and an engineer the city hired to help make their case to the corps.

Project backers aim to have the corps sign off on the diversion by the end of the year so Congress could consider it for funding.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said officials with the corps are well aware of the urgency of the project, but the decision on whether to slow the timeline is theirs.

“We’ve all pushed them very hard. There’s nothing someone could do to intervene there,” he said.

Some local officials have said they hoped to have the project approved by the corps by the end of the year so that Dorgan, who’s not running for re-election, could assist in securing funding. He is chairman of the energy and water subcommittee.

Dorgan said it’s too early to be worried about federal funding for the project, and the chief concern should be getting corps approval.

The federal share of the diversion would run about $825 million. Dorgan said $20 million for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion is already set aside in an appropriations bill.

Supporters are reaching out to other key players in Congress. A meeting is set for Aug. 26 with Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., the transportation committee chairman, as well as Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D- N.D. Oberstar could help get funding for the bridges the project requires, said Cass County Commission Chairman Darrell Vanyo.

“We’re just trying to put ourselves in the best position to get funding,” Vanyo said.

Snyder said 370 parties submitted comment before the Aug. 9 deadline to do so. He said most comments have opposed the project, but the corps has not tracked how many were for or against.

Walaker said if there is a delay, the Metro Flood Study Work Group could urge supporters to write letters to balance out the dissenting comments.

The mayor said he does believe most people in the area support the project. In collecting comments from the public in the summer of 2009, a significant majority favored a diversion plan.

Vanyo said while a delay would be disappointing, it’s keeping momentum behind the project that’s crucial.

“If we lose out on funding for a year, it causes me concern, but as long as the project keeps moving, that’s what’s important to me,” he said.

Cass County voters will go to the polls in November to consider a half-cent sales tax to raise as much as $12 million a year for 20 years to help pay for a diversion. With 91 percent in favor, Fargo voters approved a similar city tax last year.

Vanyo said he doesn’t think having the project stalled would threaten the tax hike. Even if voters outside the reach of the diversion voted in lockstep against, it would only take about 55 percent of Fargo votes to pass.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535