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Published April 07 2012

Diversion Discussion: Opponents tout retention upsides

FARGO - Rural opponents of the Red River diversion project have a reasoned message for the Diversion Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers:


Pause for a moment.

Take a few steps back and look at alternative solutions everyone can swallow and that won’t require drastic changes from the current plan.

For 3 1/2 years, Fargo-Moorhead leaders and the Army Corps have gone full-steam ahead in an effort to get permanent flood protection for the metro area.

Those aggressive efforts have pressed forward despite the vocal and passionate protests of rural residents south of Fargo-Moorhead who don’t want to be sacrificed in the process.

The proposed Red River diversion has been on the fast track, receiving approval from the Army Corps’ top chief and then the assistant Army secretary for civil works in barely four months.

The $1.8 billion project is now in the hands of Congress for potential authorization and funding, while consultants and engineers refine the specific design.

The Army Corps has maintained for months that the proverbial train is too far down the track for any drastic changes to happen, and Diversion Authority members have said they’ll try to lessen the blow as much as possible.

But upstream residents hope the plans can be altered at least enough so their communities can continue to exist and thrive.

A coalition of representatives from upstream communities affected by the project met with The Forum’s editorial board Thursday to share why they’re adamant about changing the current plans.

“People assume it’s a foregone conclusion, but there really don’t have to be any losers in this,” said Nathan Berseth, spokesman for the MnDak Upstream Coalition.

The corps’ project calls for a temporary water storage area – in actuality, a dam – that would displace and affect hundreds of rural residents south of the diversion channel.

That’s what’s giving upstream residents heartburn over Fargo’s plans for permanent flood protection.

“We’ve never opposed the diversion – just the damming of it,” Berseth said.

The desired project originally was just a diversion, but at the end of 2010, roughly two years into the feasibility study, Army Corps engineers added an upstream staging area.

To offset higher river levels the diversion would otherwise cause north of Fargo-Moorhead, the proposed staging area would hold back as much as 200,000 acre-feet of water during times of severe flood and allow time for water to reasonably flow into the diversion and around the metro.

Upstream residents maintain the dam element isn’t needed and that the concerns of downstream impacts could be resolved through strategically located retention projects.

The corps’ analysis of the various alternatives under a fast timeline didn’t allow for a closer look at retention as a solution that could work in tandem with the diversion channel, said Craig Hertsgaard, a supervisor in Richland County’s Walcott Township.

A study released last summer by the Red River Basin Commission found proper retention could lower floodwaters at Georgetown, Minn., by the same amount the original diversion project would have raised river levels there, Hertsgaard said.

Because the numbers match, Hertsgaard and others believe retention could offset the diversion’s downstream impacts without the need for a staging area.

“Our understanding is: Leave the diversion where it is and use retention to replace the dam and reservoir and there won’t be any impacts,” Hertsgaard said.

Army Corps engineers have encouraged local governments to look at retention projects that could help their communities, but they’ve also said any basinwide retention would have to be pursued separate from the F-M metro project.

Several rural governing boards – led by Richland County in North Dakota and Wilkin County in Minnesota – have signed on to a joint-powers agreement to unify their efforts to have the project changed.

To that end, Hertsgaard said the group has hired its own engineering consultant to analyze the corps’ data and propose viable alternatives, such as retention projects.

Since the corps acts at the direction of Fargo-Moorhead leaders, who are sponsoring the project, the upstream residents want the Diversion Authority to take a stand and tell the corps to look at the options they’re proposing.

“The Diversion Authority needs to tell the corps, ‘You’ve got to do something different,’ ” Hertsgaard said. “We just feel there’s a choice, rather than just being told, ‘This is what’s going to be done for you.’ ”

The Diversion Authority has taken strides to ease the upstream impacts, but time will tell how effective those efforts will be.

Several ongoing studies could yield solutions to the impacts, such as increasing the allowable Red River flows through town while the diversion is in operation.

The results of those various studies are expected this summer.

Diversion Authority officials have expressed optimism that some solutions can be found, but upstream residents are wary because they’re getting mixed messages.

Corps engineers have said significant changes – such as wholly eliminating the dam element – are impossible at this point, but Diversion Authority leaders are more open about what can and can’t be changed with the project.

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