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Erik Burgess, Published March 16 2013

Diversion survey finds residents dissatisfied

FARGO – Staunch opposition south of the city to the proposed Red River diversion is complicating efforts to mitigate the upstream effects of the project.

If the $1.8 billion diversion channel is authorized and built, it would include a 32,523-acre “staging area” south of Fargo, which would be underwater in flood events larger than a 10-year event.

Surveys were developed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to assess which option would be preferable to those living in the affected area, including the communities of Bakke, Hickson and Oxbow. Only two options are being considered viable by the corps at this time – home buyouts or a ring dike.

While Oxbow’s City Council is on record supporting a ring dike, some surveys collected from the area in January show that 53 of 62 homes throughout Bakke, Hickson and Oxbow want neither. The rest chose buyouts.

Of the “neither” votes, 41 of them were in Bakke, where residents feel like they’re being pressured into an ultimatum they don’t like. There are 57 total homes in Bakke and about 10 in Hickson.

Many of the respondents left their surveys blank and instead scrawled over the top of them giant black X’s and messages like “No Fargo Dam. No Ring Dike.” Some residents created a third check box, labeled “Neither.”

After the results were presented to the Diversion Authority in February, the board decided that “neither” is not a helpful response when a final decision on a ring dike plan has to be made by April.

One-on-one meetings between corps and diversion officials and Bakke residents were held in January, and now more meetings are scheduled in the area for later this month.

Doug Lingen, a Bakke resident, thinks he and his neighbors will be pestered about a ring dike until diversion advocates get the answer they want.

“There’s no question they’re pressuring us because we’ve already told them ‘no’ twice,” Lingen said. Pleasant Township supervisors Steve Brakke and Dennis Biewer agree with him.

Diversion officials insist they’re not trying to persuade the communities one way or the other.

“But we have to be planning,” said Eric Dodds, a diversion consultant. “We have an option to buy them out, which would happen later in the project planning timeframe, 2020 probably, 2018 at best. Or we have an opportunity to build a ring levee early and give them protection.”

Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney said he believes the surveys were worded poorly, but he hopes Bakke will become engaged in the process like Oxbow, which made a list of demands when it finally agreed to a ring dike.

Sewage protection and paved roads could be presented to Bakke if they asked for it, Mahoney said.

“I’m frustrated because I’d really like them to get involved,” he said. “If you don’t have the ability to talk about it then, in my mind, you can’t do anything because you don’t know what they want.”

Pleasant Township residents and officials said they aren’t on board for a ring dike because it pushes water onto their neighbors and the Diversion Authority, they say, can’t explain what will happen to those farmers outside the levee.

The township board earlier this year passed a resolution opposing the diversion project.

“The people of Bakke and Hickson can speak for themselves,” said Brakke, chairman of the township board. “They’re the ones that have to live behind a 10-foot wall, and I think they did speak for themselves. They said they weren’t interested.”

Dodds says the authority is studying additional ring levees around individual farmsteads and the communities of Comstock, Christine and Wolverton. He hopes to have some results from that study ready for the next round of meetings in Bakke.

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo said there are no other viable options for communities in the upstream staging area, and sidestepping the issue altogether isn’t helpful.

“If they think that’s going to send us back to the drawing board because nobody in Bakke/Hickson wants us to do either, then they’re wrong. It isn’t,” Vanyo said. “Our drawing board is one or the other.”

When the Diversion Authority makes the final call on a ring levee plan in April, it would help to have more sufficient feedback from the area, Dodds said.

“There’s 60 residents down there,” Dodds said. “I’ve got to believe that there’s some people that would be supportive of a ring levee.”

The current plan calls for a ring levee to be built around Oxbow, Bakke and Hickson. If the board decides to cut one of the three communities out of the levee, it would cause a 30-day delay.

Without that delay, the corps’ environmental assessment will be available for public review in May, and any ring levee changes will be finalized by July.

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