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Published April 28 2012

Diversion Discussion: Minnesota plan, although economical, was not favored local solution

FARGO - Not so long ago, Minnesota could have been an alternative home for a Red River diversion around Fargo-Moorhead.But with final approval handed down from Washington this month, the North Dakota diversion is now the only option left on the table.

At the consistent urging of area leaders over the past few years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers studied, pursued and ultimately signed off on the North Dakota project, which Congress will consider approving.

However, in conversations and on online comment boards, area residents – generally from the rural impacted areas of the North Dakota plan – still question why the Minnesota option didn’t become the corps’ approved project.

The evidence residents seem to cite most is the cost; the Minnesota plan was cheaper and more cost-effective than its western counterpart.

But benefits beyond cost – such as the achievable level of protection – are why Fargo-Moorhead officials say they wanted a diversion in North Dakota.

In fall 2009, after roughly a year of initial study, the Army Corps presented an array of potential flood control projects, including six diversion plans in Minnesota and three in North Dakota.

A predominant factor in weighing the alternatives was the cost-benefit ratio: how much it would cost to build and maintain the project compared to how much benefit could result.

Federal aid to help fund the project was contingent on the final project having a ratio where the benefit outweighed the cost. The optimal plan in the federal government’s eyes would be the one with the best cost-benefit ratio.

By November 2009, metro leaders had trimmed their options to three diversion alternatives and asked the corps to study whether a North Dakota-side diversion – the preferred choice among Fargo-Moorhead officials – could be cost-effective enough to qualify for the federal funding.

Initial projections showed a Minnesota project would meet the cost-benefit ratio, while North Dakota options fell short.

In February 2010, the corps came back and found they could make the North Dakota options more cost-effective.

Those would still cost much more than any Minnesota alternative because there were more environmental barriers, namely the five rivers a North Dakota diversion channel has to navigate.

At that time, a 20,000 cubic feet per second diversion in Minnesota was still the best deal for the nation, but local leaders said that project wouldn’t cut it because of the relatively weak protection it offered against a 500-year flood.

The approved project officials are pursuing today – a 20,000 cfs North Dakota diversion with upstream storage – gives the metro area 100-year flood protection, with the ability to use emergency measures to protect against a 500-year event.

By March 2010, Fargo-Moorhead leaders endorsed a North Dakota diversion as their “locally preferred plan,” but the Minnesota plan remained the most preferable under the federal government’s cost-benefit criteria.

Local leaders’ preference was driven in part by political will from metro-area communities and residents.

At one of many public meetings held before the decision, about 200 people gathered in Fargo to weigh in on which diversion option local leaders should pursue.

Most of those who spoke were either emphatically for a North Dakota project or stridently against putting it in Minnesota, according to a Forum article.

Local leaders had said the meeting reflected “an overwhelming viewpoint” from the community that the diversion should go in North Dakota.

“What I’m seeing is we’d have much more unity in this Red River Valley if (the diversion) went on the North Dakota side,” Moorhead City Council member Nancy Otto said at the time.

The city and residents of Dilworth were among the most outspoken opponents of a Minnesota project. They feared a diversion east of Dilworth would not only cut off growth but endanger underground aquifers that serve as the city’s water supply.

Influential leaders, including then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, were similarly on board for a North Dakota-side project, as were two grassroots groups that lobbied for it: the (N.D.) Flood Protection Coalition and the (Minn.) Citizens for a North Dakota Diversion.

There was virtually no public resistance to a North Dakota diversion at that time, only objections to one in Minnesota.

That political will drove Jo-Ellen Darcy, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, to grant a crucial exception in April 2010.

This allowed the corps to proceed with developing the “locally preferred plan,” despite it being less cost-efficient than the Minnesota proposal.

The corps’ approval through a record of decision this month killed any lingering chance a Minnesota diversion could be built.

Corps project manager Aaron Snyder explained at the last Diversion Authority meeting that had there not been a different locally preferred option, the corps likely would have gone forward with a diversion channel in Minnesota.

The record of decision made it clear that although the Minnesota diversion channel would be the “environmentally preferable plan,” it was not selected for the corps’ approval because of other reasons, Snyder said.

“(The record of decision is) closing the loop on the documentation,” Snyder said. “The Minnesota plan is completely off the table; the only plan on the table is the North Dakota plan with upstream staging and storage.”

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?

Send an email to 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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