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Published April 19 2012

North Dakota lawmakers hear about F-M diversion plans, concerns

FARGO – North Dakota lawmakers got a crash course Thursday on the Red River diversion project, the metrowide need for it and the emotional debate over its controversial feature that threatens residents south of Fargo-Moorhead.

About 75 officials and rural residents attended the field hearing of the Water-Related Topics Overview Committee, an interim board of the North Dakota Legislature.

Fargo-area leaders, consultants and engineers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers testified for several hours and answered questions about the proposed diversion.

Two upstream leaders spoke on behalf of the dozen or so opponents who were also present Thursday. They told state lawmakers about their concerns over the project’s upstream impacts and alternative solutions they support.

The hearing was a chance for North Dakota lawmakers to get up-to-speed on the project and hear information that could influence future appropriations.

Questions from lawmakers Thursday focused on the consequences and cost of the $1.8 billion project.

Under current funding formulas, the state could be on the hook for $500 million.

“We’re all about the money here,” said House Majority Leader Al Carlson of Fargo. “We’re just trying to figure out the mix of how the money is going to be used or requested from the state.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo both reiterated how the Red River diversion plan is the preferred solution to overcome the region’s flood problems.

“Other alternatives have been studied, and we always come back that the diversion is the best solution,” Vanyo said.

Walaker also described his city’s two-part effort to shore up flood protection, which will require more state aid than originally planned.

The F-M diversion is “our No. 1 project,” Walaker said, but he also explained Fargo’s goal to build up inner-city protection to 42.5 feet. That goal could cost $247 million, separate from the $1.8 billion diversion.

The state Legislature has appropriated $75 million toward Fargo-area flood protection since 2009.

“You’re going to get more information than one can absorb in two hours,” Walaker said.

“The diversion has been a well-thought-out process, no matter what you hear,” he added in clear reference to the projects’ opponents in the audience.

Residents south of Fargo-Moorhead don’t object to the diversion channel itself, but to a dam feature that will bring water on their communities.

A water storage component south of the proposed diversion channel will affect hundreds of residents as far south as Richland and Wilkin counties.

Residents affected by the storage area have been protesting for months, aiming to convince Diversion Authority leaders and the corps to alter their plans and prevent impacts to the upstream communities.

Walcott Township Chairman Craig Hertsgaard asked state lawmakers Thursday to put conditions on any future state dollars allocated toward the diversion project.

“It’s possible and plausible to pursue a project that helps – not harms – the region,” he said.

Hertsgaard and a coalition of upstream stakeholders want basinwide retention for the Red River Valley, which could reduce flood impacts beyond just the Fargo-Moorhead area.

The residents say strategic retention would negate the need for the proposed storage area that threatens their towns.

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

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