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Published February 21 2012

Richland, Wilkin unify against diversion’s upstream impacts

WAHPETON, N.D. – With a unanimous voice Tuesday, leaders in neighboring counties south of Fargo-Moorhead formalized their plans to fight the proposed Red River diversion.

At simultaneous but separate meetings, Wilkin County, Minn., and Richland County, N.D., commissioners approved a joint-powers agreement that establishes an independent governing board and empowers the counties to use public resources in their collaborative efforts to halt the current project.

The votes cap off weeks of discussion between the two counties about how to coordinate their protests and, more specifically, protect their communities from the diversion’s upstream impacts.

“Richland and Wilkin are really united in opposing any damage to our counties,” said Richland County Commission Chairman Perry Miller. “We just feel it’s unnecessary.”

Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show as many as 70 buildings – including 27 homes – in Richland and Wilkin counties could be affected by additional flooding caused by the proposed F-M diversion project.

Plans include a storage area that would temporarily hold back as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water in primarily southern Cass and Clay counties, but the impacts also extend into northern Richland and Wilkin counties.

Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority and Corps of Engineers officials are studying options to minimize how often the diversion channel and its adjacent storage area would be used.

Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said again Tuesday that Diversion Authority leaders are optimistic they’ll find an amicable solution for upstream communities.

“Everybody agrees that we have a huge problem that needs to be resolved,” Berndt said, adding that the Diversion Authority will “respect whatever choices” Richland and Wilkin county leaders make in opposing the project.

The joint-powers agreement between Richland and Wilkin counties establishes a formal avenue for upstream stakeholders to protest, especially if they feel legal action is necessary in the future.

The agreement allows the joint board to “take any and all steps necessary” to protect their citizens and property, including litigation that would halt the project until the upstream impacts can be eliminated.

“We are for flood protection for the city of Fargo. We’re not against it,” said Richland County Commissioner Sid Berg, “but what they’re proposing is total devastation to our county. … It’s just not workable.”

Richland County commissioners voted 5-0 to approve the joint-powers agreement.

Wilkin County leaders approved the agreement by a 3-0 vote. Two commissioners – Stephanie Miranowski and Chairman Neal Folstad – were absent, Wilkin County Auditor Wayne Bezenek said.

The joint board will be comprised of two commissioners from each county, with the potential for other representatives as more local governing boards – such as cities, townships and school districts – sign on to the agreement.

Richland County Commissioners Berg and Miller and Wilkin County Commissioners Miranowski and Lyle Hovland were appointed by their respective commissions to serve on the joint board.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541