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Mike Nowatzki and TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published February 25 2013

Proposal would block spending state funding on F-M diversion

FARGO – Red River diversion supporters warned Monday that a Fargo lawmaker’s proposed amendments to a state funding bill could kill the flood control project.

The proposals by House Majority Leader Al Carlson, R-Fargo, would amend state law so that $45 million approved in 2009 for Fargo flood control projects and $30 million approved in 2011 couldn’t be used for home buyouts or a river diversion project.

The restrictions also would apply to $100 million being considered in House Bill 1020, the State Water Commission funding bill for the next two years.

The added language specifically outlaws the use of public funds to build ring dikes or water retention structures associated with the Fargo flood control project – both key components of the $1.8 billion diversion plan, which would build a 35-mile channel to route floodwaters around the Fargo-Moorhead area during severe floods.

“There’s no doubt, (they are) amendments intended to kill the diversion project,” Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt said.

“He can take that attitude if he wants, but he’s not right,” Carlson said in response Monday.

Carlson said he’s concerned the diversion project could “lay a very heavy burden” on Cass County residents if federal funding fails to materialize.

“The purpose was to say this project needs federal involvement, and when the first dollar is in from the state, we don’t believe it’ll be easy to access federal funds,” he said.

The House Appropriations Committee voted 19-2 on Friday to give the amended bill a do-pass recommendation, after it passed the Education and Environment Division subcommittee.

The Legislative Council was preparing the amended bill Monday, and it could hit the House floor as early as Tuesday, with floor discussion starting as early as Wednesday. The Senate will take up the bill next month after crossover.

Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, voted against the anti-diversion amendment before voting for the amended bill, saying he hopes the Senate can fix it.

“If we send the message to (Washington) D.C., that the state isn’t on board with this diversion, why would they fund it?” he said.

The amendments cap state funding for Fargo’s flood control project at $325 million and clarify the Legislature’s intent that the funds “not be used for a river diversion flood control project.” Carlson indicated the state could go back and reinstate diversion funding if the federal government pays its share.

A national environmental review of the diversion is expected to wrap up in July, and officials hope Congress will authorize the project yet this year, Berndt said.

“But certainly it really hurts our chances of getting federal money when we have this kind of dissention at the state level from one of our own legislators from Fargo,” he said.

Carlson said other areas of the state, including Minot, also have flood control issues, and water supply needs have been ignored. The bill sets aside $11 million for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, he noted.

Carlson said he believes diversion supporters have “heartburn” over the amendment language that bars the use of public funds for ring dikes – such as the one proposed to protect Oxbow from flooding in the water staging area south of the diversion. Instead, the bill directs the State Water Commission to study ring dikes as part of Fargo’s protection plan.

In a letter to state representatives Monday, Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof asked that the amendment be removed. He wrote that the majority of Oxbow favors a ring dike plan that has given them “light at the end of the tunnel.”

If the amendment stays, “that light will be extinguished and the ‘limbo’ the residents of the community I represent will return for some unknown length of time,” Nyhof wrote.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the amendments wouldn’t affect the city’s ongoing efforts to raise flood protection to a river stage of 42.5 feet. But he said they could slow the start of construction on the diversion, adding to its $1.8 billion cost.

“We have to come up with a strategy to get it changed,” he said of the amended bill.

TJ Jerke is a Forum News Service reporter in Bismarck.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528