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Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications Co., Published September 30 2010

Downstream communities asked to join flood group

GRAND FORKS – Red River Valley leaders were asked Wednesday to join up and create a unified voice to ensure downstream communities aren’t affected by the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion project.

It’s a goal the Red River Diversion Downstream Impact Group has worked on for about a year. But Wednesday’s meeting at East Grand Forks’ City Hall asked about 25 downstream communities and counties on both sides of the river to join in by signing a joint powers agreement.

It would create a group that would ensure the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers takes into account all of the potential impacts of the proposed $1.4 million diversion, said Hendrum, Minn., Mayor Curt Johannsen.

A report released by the corps in August estimated the diversion could add more than a foot to a Red River crest at the Thompson Bridge south of Grand Forks.

The goal of the group is to ensure that all downstream impacts are identified and that the necessary mitigation work will be added into the diversion project’s price tag, Johannsen said. But they would also encourage alternatives to the diversion that would provide a basinwide solution to flooding.

Johannsen said a 2009 flood that hit Hendrum cost about $200,000 – a big chunk of the $330,000 annual budget for the town of about 315. The Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursed most of the costs, but he said getting that level of funding might not always be possible.

“There’s no way you can afford to pay $200,000 to fight a future flood, especially when they’re happening on a back-to-back basis like they have been,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was a chance for members of the Downstream Impact Group to explain the idea to local officials and encourage them to join. They’re now asking those city and county officials to return to their councils or boards and propose signing the JPA.

The corps recently extended a project feasibility study to allow for additional analysis of alternatives and impacts. The study is now expected to be open for comment in spring 2011.

Bill Brudvik, a Mayville, N.D., attorney who is working with the organization, said that extension might lead a lot of people to “take the attitude that the immediacy is gone” and that the corps will address all of their concerns.

“I think the spring of 2011 is not that far off,” Brudvik said. “More importantly, I think you people need to be your own advocates. We can’t rely on the corps to identify all of the adverse downstream impacts.”

The group is asking communities that join to contribute $1,000 to pay for startup costs. But how the group functions and what it does would largely be up to the members, Johannsen said.

He proposed creating a board of directors with one member from each government entity that signs on. That board would then create bylaws and set the budget for the group, Johannsen said.

Once up and running, engineers and consultants would be hired to identify all downstream impacts. That information, he said, would be shared with the corps as it continues work on the feasibility study.

But organizers of the group also hope to get city and county leaders to sign on by Nov. 1 to start the work as soon as possible.

Johannsen said he thinks that there’s “a narrow window of opportunity” for this group because there’s still time to get involved before diversion plans – and federal funding for the project – are finalized.

He said federal money could pay for a flooding solution for everyone, not just one area. And after the diversion funding is set, he said, it’s unlikely that more federal funds would be dedicated to other Red River Valley flood control projects.

“We believe this is a one-time shot,” Johannsen said. “We know Fargo-Moorhead needs protection, but we all do. And it needs to be done in a way where nobody else gets sacrificed.”

Johnson writes for the Grand Forks Herald