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Published December 10 2011

Diversion Discussion: Upstream residents lack optimism about new study’s possible mitigation relief

FARGO - Residents south of the metro area have differing opinions about what a new Red River diversion study could mean for their communities.

Consulting engineers revealed Thursday they plan to explore whether allowing more water to pass through downtown will minimize the diversion’s impacts south of Fargo-Moorhead.

Some rural leaders welcomed the show of good intent from Diversion Authority officials.

Others were skeptical that the study or any result from it would offer hope for affected residents.

Between now and July, consulting engineers said they’ll look at whether the diversion channel and its adjacent staging area to the south will be needed less frequently if water flows are increased through Fargo-Moorhead.

Exploring this scenario is in “direct response” to the concerns about the negative impacts of upstream staging, Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said.

Communities south of Fargo-Moorhead – including Oxbow, Hickson, Christine and the Bakke Addition – lie in a proposed staging area associated with the project, which is meant to provide 200,000 acre-feet of water storage.

The staging area would only be used when necessary to temporarily hold back extra water before it drains into the diversion, the Army Corps has said.

That storage could bring as much as 8 feet of extra water to rural residents.

But allowing more water to pass through the river channel might significantly decrease the number of times water would need to be staged south of Fargo, engineers said last week.

MnDak Upstream Coalition spokesman Nathan Berseth said the alternative could be “a step in the right direction.”

But that depends on where the benefits would be reaped, he said.

If increasing Red River water flows lessens the blow to communities south of the diversion channel, the change would be a positive move by the Diversion Authority, Berseth said.

But if only a portion of the storage area benefits, it might strengthen the opposition’s argument, he said.

One-quarter of the 200,000 acre-feet of storage lies within the protected area of the diversion, just north of the southwest bend of the channel.

“If they’re trying to eliminate the 50,000 acre-feet inside the diversion, that does nothing,” Berseth said. “That just proves what we believe: that (Fargo leaders) just want more land for development.”

Craig Hertsgaard, a Kindred resident with the “Stop the Fargo Dam” group, echoed Berseth’s concerns.

He hopes diversion officials will also look at ways to provide retention-based flood protection that won’t affect rural towns.

“We’re all looking at trying to find a way that Fargo can get their diversion and we can keep our communities intact,” Hertsgaard said.

Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof said he’s more on the fence about the forthcoming study.

Oxbow residents want the impact on their community reduced to no more than 3 feet of water. That way, the city could build a ring dike to buffer residents from the diversion’s stored water.

The new study and the potential behind it “does create the opportunity, in some form, to exist,” Nyhof said of Oxbow’s fate. “But it’s not any more hopeful now than it was before.”

Consulting engineers said they believe their proposal to increase Red River flows could mean sizable benefits upstream of the project.

Under the corps’ feasibility plans, the diversion would begin operating once Red River flows through downtown reach 9,600 cubic feet per second, or a level of about 30.8 feet on the Fargo gauge.

With those conditions, there would be a 25 percent chance each year that the diversion and its adjacent staging area to the south would need to be used to combat severe flooding.

Increasing the river flows could reduce that probability, engineers said.

For example, if flows along the Red River reach 17,000 cubic feet per second – or about 35 feet on the Fargo gauge – the annual chance of using the diversion would drop to 10 percent.

Changing the flows on the river wouldn’t alter the size or capacity of the diversion channel, but it could save more money for the $1.8 billion project, corps engineers said.

Join the “Diversion Discussion” at www.diversiondiscussion.areavoices.com.

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