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Published February 05 2012

Diversion Discussion: Timing of Cass County tax remains questionable among diversion critics

FARGO - Some Cass County residents still harbor bitter feelings over the county’s half-cent sales tax that’s helping to pay for the Red River diversion.

Some feel betrayed – deceived, even – by how residents voted to approve the tax only to find out a few weeks later plans for the Red River diversion would change drastically.

Was it a conspiracy to advance the project, or was it simply bad timing?

In the fall of 2010, Cass County leaders lobbied aggressively to earn voters’ approval for the tax that now generates about $11 million a year toward the expected diversion costs.

During those same months, officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were toiling away with various hydrology studies and models related to the diversion project.

They sought to address downstream impacts the diversion would cause north of Fargo-Moorhead.

Projections showed higher river levels would be felt all the way into Canada, which – if left unresolved – might trigger an international dispute.

The first indicator that the corps might change the project’s components came in mid-September, about six weeks prior to the county vote. Corps officials pushed back the fast-tracked timeline for the diversion study, citing the need to take a closer look at the downstream impacts and find suitable alternatives.

Between September and November, corps engineers studied a variety of alternatives using hydrological models, corps project manager Aaron Snyder said.

Those options included detailed analyses and independent review of the existing models, as well as evaluating the consequences of new models that shifted the impacts upstream, Snyder said.

Meanwhile, 64 percent of Cass County voters approved the half-cent sales tax on Nov. 2, ensuring a local funding stream to help pay for the diversion.

Barely two weeks later, at a Nov. 18 meeting of the Metro Flood Study Work Group, corps engineers revealed the result of their most recent studies.

Most strikingly, the project now included storage areas south of Fargo-Moorhead that would hold back 200,000 acre-feet of water during major floods.

Those same upstream areas are also home to several rural communities in North Dakota – including Oxbow, Hickson, Christine – and some in Minnesota, such as Comstock and Wolverton.

Residents in those towns could be displaced because of the upstream retention component to the project.

Diversion Authority officials are analyzing new ways to minimize those impacts in order to keep those communities intact, but the affected residents remain concerned for their future livelihoods.

Critics of the diversion project say Cass County residents should’ve been told prior to the Nov. 2 vote that the corps would shift impacts upstream.

City and county leaders agree, but they said again recently they had no idea of the corps’ plans to change the project.

“It shocked us all,” Cass County Commission Chairman Scott Wagner said. “Obviously, if there’s anything we would’ve known, we would’ve communicated that. You have to, in all fairness, but no one that I know of knew anything.”

It was up to the Army Corps engineers to break the news, and Snyder said the engineers’ analysis wasn’t final until days after the Nov. 2 vote.

“The election was not a factor,” Snyder said. “Our primary consideration in deciding when to release technical information was our confidence on the accuracy of that information.”

The day of the election, corps engineers were still in the midst of independent reviews on the new hydraulic models, Snyder said, “and it would not have been appropriate to publish the data we had at that time.”

Throughout November 2010, the corps worked on verifying and finalizing its findings before unveiling them to Fargo-Moorhead leaders later that month.

All local officials knew before then was the corps wanted to resolve the downstream impacts, Cass County Commissioner Darrell Vanyo said.

“That the corps came out after the election, it’s not something that was concocted in an effort to pass something first, and then get the word out. This was just the sequence,” he said.

“Some claim a game was played; it wasn’t,” Vanyo added. “Look at all the twists and turns that have happened in the last three years with this project.”

Even if the project’s upstream features were announced prior to the vote, it may or may not have changed the outcome.

Voters in Argusville, Arthur, Buffalo, Casselton, Kindred, Leonard, Mapleton and Page all opposed the countywide tax by at least 60 percent of the vote.

But it was strong support from voters in Fargo and West Fargo – home to nearly 84 percent of county residents – that ensured the measure’s passage.

Voters in rural townships south of Fargo also favored the tax; however, those votes likely would’ve been cast differently had the corps’ announcement come sooner.

Between the Hickson- and Harwood-area precints, 881 of 1607 voters – or about 55 percent – approved of the sales tax.

Countywide, the final vote had 30,556 voters in favor of the tax, with 17,144 opposed.

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