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Published December 24 2011

Diversion Discussion: Ceremony gives way to serious obstacles

Warm feelings of achievement after overcoming a milestone for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion could soon fade into harsh reality as officials soak in the obstacles ahead.

Proponents of the project certainly have reason to celebrate after last week.

The signing of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ chief’s report marked a long-awaited step toward securing permanent flood protection for the metro area.

Not to dampen the community spirit, but even the most cheerleading of government officials recognize: There’s a long, bumpy road ahead if the diversion is ever to become a reality.

The burdensome red tape and partisan divisiveness of Congress could put a crimp in the timeline, and the logistics of Capitol Hill and the backlog of Army Corps projects could also bring the diversion to a standstill.

First, Congress needs to both fund and authorize the Red River diversion before any shovels hit the ground.

Notice: It’s a two-step process, and if the project doesn’t pass both, it’s potentially dead on arrival.

North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad said last week the likely vehicle to authorize the F-M diversion would come through a Water Resource Development Act, legislation that passes civil works projects through the first barrier.

Then, the next challenge: Vying for a sliver of a pot of money, one that’s already limited, during an era when members of Congress are under intense pressure to cut federal spending.

North Dakota and Minnesota federal lawmakers have pledged to make the F-M diversion a priority, vowing to lobby for the necessary dollars needed for design and construction.

In the absence of a congressional budget, initial funding for feasibility and design of the diversion so far has come through provisions secured through President Barack Obama’s budget.

Earlier this month, lawmakers secured another $11.4 million to fund design through the end of the 2012 fiscal year, which ends in September.

The delegations from North Dakota and Minnesota said they plan to request another $30 million out of the 2013 budget toward the diversion.

With the uncertainty in Congress, those dollars could be appropriated either through Congress – if it adopts a budget – or, again, through a presidential one.

But despite area lawmakers’ efforts, it’s reasonable to assume that the money might not come as swiftly or reliably as local leaders might like.

Fargo-Moorhead isn’t the only place looking for project funding from the Army Corps of Engineers.

Some corps projects have been on the shelf for years, stuck in a limbo somewhere in the process of “authorization and funding.”

A project can be authorized and not receive funding. Or it can also be authorized and partially funded, but not completed.

It’s not all or nothing.

Reports from the Congressional Research Service in August detail just how much of a demand the Army Corps has on its limited resources.

The CRS says the corps “now faces a construction backlog of more than

$62 billion, while receiving roughly $2 billion a year in construction funding.”

That backlog includes “more than 1,000 authorized studies and construction projects.”

“In part because of competition for funds and because Corps authorizations far outpace appropriations, many authorized activities have not received appropriations,” the CRS explains.

For the F-M project, North Dakota and Minnesota lawmakers are hoping to receive about $800 million through Congress to cover the federal portion of the

$1.8 billion project. The federal contribution would spread across several years.

The balance of the project cost is to be paid by the North Dakota and Minnesota state governments, Cass and Clay counties and the cities of Fargo and Moorhead.

Even in smaller increments, the federal money would be a significant portion of the corps’ available annual funds, making the challenge even greater for North Dakota and Minnesota members of Congress.

“We have a very good case to make,” Conrad said, adding: “This is going to be hard; there’s no way around that … but it’s very clear that it needs to be done. The cost of a catastrophic flood would be devastating.”

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

Have a question about the proposed Red River diversion, or want to recommend a topic you’d like to see addressed in an upcoming column?

Email Forum reporter Kristen Daum at kdaum@forumcomm.com (Subject: Diversion Discussion) or write to Kristen Daum c/o The Forum, P.O. Box 2020, Fargo, ND 58107.

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