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Published June 19 2013

ND gives early help to $60 million Sheyenne flood project

BISMARCK – Bending its rules in the process, the State Water Commission on Wednesday approved about $1.3 million for Valley City, Lisbon and Fort Ransom to begin engineering work on a $60 million project to protect the cities from Sheyenne River flooding.

The Sheyenne River Valley Flood Control Project will use a combination of property buyouts, floodwalls and levees to safeguard the cities. The state Legislature this spring put $21 million in the State Water Commission budget that may be used for the project, which city officials estimate will cost about $60 million overall.

Engineering and legal work aren’t eligible for state reimbursement under the commission’s cost-share policy, but State Engineer Todd Sando recommended in a memo to Gov. Jack Dalrymple and the other eight commission members that they make an exception to provide cost-sharing for preliminary engineering design and to allow a higher cost-share percentage than normal.

Bruce Engelhardt, the commission’s water development director, said the cost of fighting and recovering from floods in 2009, 2010 and 2011 have cut into the three cities’ ability to pay for permanent flood protection. Also, he said the cities face an increased risk of flooding because of the state’s two manmade outlets that pump water from Devils Lake, water that eventually flows into the Sheyenne River and through the three cities.

The commission was asked to cover 85 percent of Valley City’s engineering expenses at a cost to the state of $350,625. Lisbon and Fort Ransom would have 90 percent covered, costing the state $700,650 and $225,000, respectively, for a total state cost not to exceed $1,276,275.

Commissioner Harley Swenson, of Bismarck, voted with the other members to unanimously approve the funding but not before raising concerns about the precedent it could set.

Swenson said the state has always required local entities to step up and cover engineering costs on their own, with the state helping out with construction costs.

“We’ve always wanted local skin in the game, and this reduces that skin to a fingernail,” Swenson said.

Dalrymple, who chairs the commission, said a distinction must be made because the Devils Lake outlets are exacerbating the cities’ flooding problems.

“We have increased our responsibility,” he said.

Swenson said he didn’t see enough evidence to prove that the cities are unable to cost-share at the same level as everyone else in the state.

“If they’re not able to fund engineering, we’re certainly going to have to violate our policy for construction,” he said.

Sando said the commission still needs to figure out the cost-share percentages for the $21 million.

Valley City Mayor Bob Werkhoven and Lisbon Mayor Ross Cole said they both hope to start construction on permanent levees next year.

Lisbon has purchased 27 or 28 at-risk properties since the 2009 flood and has two or three buyouts left to complete, Cole said.

Valley City purchased about 30 properties in its first round of buyouts and is proposing to buy out 17 or 18 more this year or next year, Werkhoven said.

Cole said the three consecutive years of flooding and the recovery that followed cost Lisbon roughly $3 million.

“For a town of 2,200 people, it’s a big amount of money,” he said.

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