Published September 01 2011
Rep. Collin Peterson says he needs to scale back water-retention plans
Not so fast.
Facing the harsh reality of federal spending constraints, the veteran Demo-
crat acknowledged Wednesday he needs to scale back his plans.
“It’s going to be more difficult, and that’s why I have to be realistic in what we can accomplish,” Peterson said, reflecting a significant shift in tone from previous months.
Peterson says he’s now hoping to get at least $300 million guaranteed toward boosting regional flood mitigation – but even that’s not a certainty.
This fall, a special committee of Congress will outline spending cuts for the federal budget.
However much the committee demands from agriculture will influence how much the Red River Valley might get for its water projects, Peterson said.
“We’re in Never-Never Land with this whole budget process,” he said. “Nobody has any idea what’s going to happen, other than we’re going to spend less money.”
Peterson, who represents western Minnesota, is the senior Democrat on the House Ag Committee.
More than a year ago, he launched an endeavor to secure a half-billion dollars of mandatory funding in the next farm bill.
The dollars would be matched by an equal share from local and state agencies for a total of $1 billion over 10 years to pay for at least 50 retention projects throughout the valley.
Peterson believes permanent flood protection for the valley must include both retention and defensive measures.
His work complements separate plans for a Red River diversion around Fargo-Moorhead, estimated to cost $1.78 billion.
Peterson’s revised position – while disappointing – isn’t unexpected given the national budget situation, said Jon Evert, chairman of both the Clay County Commission and the Red River Basin Commission.
“We had hoped what he said earlier would come true, but nobody was expecting it because of the changes in Washington,” Evert said.
Nonetheless, fewer federal dollars “will make a difference,” Evert said.
“It does cost a lot of money to retain water, and that money was going to be a major source of revenue to reach 20 percent retention across the valley,” he said.
But despite the obstacles, Peterson said his goal remains unchanged of creating 1 million acre-feet of storage between North Dakota and Minnesota.
But with potentially $200 million less guaranteed than originally planned, the funding won’t be “as effective” for local water officials, Peterson said.
Local leaders won’t have the luxury of planning for the future, as they would have had if they could bank on federal dollars coming in, Peterson said.
Nonetheless, top officials at the Natural Resources Conservation Service have vowed to support a funding stream through that federal agency so, at least, the retention projects can still happen.
“We’d still get it done,” Peterson said.
Even if the money were available immediately, Peterson said local groups would have to scramble just to find projects that are ready to move forward.
“It’s going to take a while to get this stuff in place; we don’t do this overnight,” Peterson said Wednesday.
Peterson met Wednesday with regional, state and federal water officials and representatives from various farming groups.
As part of retention, Peterson said he wants to emphasize projects that are environmentally friendly and also allow crop producers to make the most out of their land.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541