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Erik Burgess, Published February 27 2013

ND House passes state water bill with ‘diversion killing’ amendments

FARGO – Many state legislators representing Fargo agree with local officials –the State Water Commission budget bill, as written, may hamper hopes that the $1.8 billion diversion to protect the metro area from floods will ever be built.

Still, the bill was passed handily in the House on Wednesday morning in a 90-4 vote, with all 14 representatives from Fargo voting for the bill.

Amendments made by House Majority Leader Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, restrict the flood control projects here. The $45 million in-state funds approved in 2009 for Fargo flood control projects, $30 million in 2011 and $100 million approved Wednesday can’t be used for home buyouts or a river diversion project.

Many legislators that responded to requests for comment from The Forum on Wednesday said it’s better to keep the budget moving than kill it in the House. The Senate must still consider the bill.

“It provides for water projects throughout the state, so we needed to pass a budget,” said Rep. Scot Kelsh, D-Fargo. “We’re hoping the Senate has the sense in being able to take care of those egregious amendments that will essentially block the diversion.”

There was some agreement across the aisle on the issue.

“They’re truly awful,” Rep. Kathy Hawken, R-Fargo, said of the amendments. “We haven’t done what they’re doing to Fargo to any other district on any other water bill. It’s a micromanaging of it.”

Carlson argues that the amendments protect Cass County taxpayers from a “very heavy burden” if federal funding for the project never materializes.

Diversion advocates say that if the state doesn’t show support, the federal government will be less likely to authorize and fund the project, which would build a 35-mile channel to route floodwaters around Fargo-Moorhead during severe floods.

Some Fargo lawmakers do support the restrictions. Reps. Bette Grande and Jim Kasper, Republicans from Fargo, said Wednesday they agree with Carlson.

“You have to have the federal money in place. This is a $2 billion project,” Grande said.

Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Diversion Authority, said the federal government already has more skin in the game than the state.

Vanyo said the feds have spent $50 million over the past four years in home buyouts and Army Corps of Engineers work activity. Meanwhile, the state, he said, has spent $37 million.

“They can pat themselves on the back about $75 million being appropriated previously and now

$100 million, but you know what? Look at the restrictions on all of it,” he said. “You’ll see that very little, if any of it, ever gets used for the diversion.”

Once the bill got to the floor Wednesday, House Democrats say only Carlson and the Republican majority could’ve pulled the amendment out and allowed a separate vote on it. Bills cannot be amended on the House floor, Hawken said.

“I was forced to vote for it,” Rep. Ed Gruchalla, D-Fargo, wrote in an email, because the bill had “many good things in it” across the state.

The amendments were first introduced by Carlson and agreed to in the eight-member Education and Environment Division sub-committee last week. Grande is the only Fargo legislator on that sub-committee.

The full House Appropriations Committee voted 19-2 late last week to give the bill a do pass recommendation with the amendments.

Diversion advocates said they were aware of the amendments but thought they were merely “concepts” and not to be included in the bill, said City Administrator Pat Zavoral.

Meanwhile, city and county officials were pushing representatives on the committee to pass the bill, not knowing that the amendments had been added last minute.

“I understand this is not untypical about how legislatures work and so forth, but it really drives me up a wall,” Vanyo said.

Grande said even with the amendment, the budget still provides funds for Fargo to get 42.5 feet of protection.

Mayor Dennis Walaker disputed that.

“That’s not what the bill says,” he said. “The bill says we’re not supposed to buy any homes. We’re not supposed to build any ring dikes.”

With those restrictions, it’s going to be “extremely difficult” to get to 42.5 feet of protection, Walaker said.

But he said he’s not mad at legislators for voting how they did.

“The subcommittee listened to us, but (Carlson) has more clout and more power than any one legislator,” he said.

Zavoral said their sights are now on the Senate, which can change the bill, forcing a conference committee to hash out the differences.

“While I’m still uncomfortable with the amendments, I could not vote against all of the worthy initiatives that are in the bill,” Rep. Joe Heilman, R-Fargo wrote in an email. “We still have a lot of time to make it better.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518