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Erik Burgess, Published May 15 2013

U.S. Senate gives green light to F-M diversion

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate has authorized the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, what proponents call a major milestone for the proposed

$1.8 billion project.

If the U.S. House joins the Senate in giving the project a green light, essentially saying the diversion is worthy of funding, the sole – but daunting – hurdle that would remain in Congress is the project’s $800 million in federal funding.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said the Senate approved on Wednesday the 2013 Water Resources Development Act, a bill that includes approval of the flood channel around the metro.

“This is a big step forward,” Hoeven said. “We had to get this project authorized in order to move forward. It’s about getting permanent flood protection, instead of fighting a flood every year.”

Because of the size of the $800 million federal share of the diversion, it would likely need to be appropriated in chunks on a yearly basis, he said.

Keith Berndt, Cass County administrator, said while the Senate’s authorization is “very significant,” there’s plenty more work to be done.

“It’s the first step. We’ve got three more critical steps,” Berndt said, referring to House authorization and then appropriation by both chambers. “We’ve heard it’s going to take longer in the House, but we’re optimistic.”

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the House likely won’t vote on its version of the bill until late summer or fall, but that it is currently making its way through committee hearings in the House.

Cramer said since the House last passed a Water Resources Development Act in 2007, the body has installed a prohibition on earmarks, which could make it “a little awkward” to authorize and appropriate funds for a specific project.

“I personally think authorization doesn’t necessarily mean appropriation,” Cramer said, “and that’s sorta the struggle that the committee’s having now is how to authorize, at a broad level, water projects without them being considered, you know, an appropriation earmark.”

Cramer said the fact that the diversion was left out of President Barack Obama’s 2014 budget proposal makes it all the more challenging to pass, but he is still “fairly optimistic.”

“We’ll have something,” he said. “I just don’t know how specific it’s going to be in terms of breaking out specific projects.”

Nathan Berseth, spokesman for the MnDak Upstream Coalition, which opposes the diversion, said there is plenty in the project to offend conservatives and liberals in the House, making the authorization piece there a challenge.

Berseth said the project gives the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “a lot of power,” which conservatives might not agree with. “And it hurts the environment. That the liberals are opposed to,” Berseth claimed.

Even if the diversion is authorized by the House, Berseth said he doesn’t believe the federal government can stomach giving $800 million to a single project, even over the course of several years.

“The federal government hasn’t participated at that level for years,” he said. “They don’t have the money, and they won’t participate at that amount.”

Hoeven argued the permanent protection provided by the diversion channel will be cheaper than the almost annual flood fights, which this year cost Fargo at least $2.5 million, and more than $20 million for the four major floods in the past five years.

Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., and North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple all applauded the Senate’s approval of the project Wednesday.

Diversion Authority Board members are taking a trip to Washington on Monday, with plans to talk to the congressional delegation about the project, said Darrell Vanyo, the board’s chairman.

Vanyo said he’s hopeful the House will authorize the project this year, and that perhaps funding will be in line in time for next year’s construction season.

“Any time that something happens, whether it’s state or federal level, it’s a good milestone that’s achieved, and it means that there’s one less in front of us,” Vanyo said. “We’re very happy about it.”

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