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Erik Burgess, Published July 17 2013

Moorhead-area legislators says local projects to be funded before diversion

MOORHEAD – Area state legislators say the proposed $1.8 billion Fargo-Moorhead diversion is a taboo topic at the Capitol, at least for now.

They told Moorhead council members at a non-voting meeting Monday that they would not push for diversion funding at the Capitol until other area flood projects using state funds – such as in-town levees and home buyouts here – are 100 percent completed.

“I don’t even want to talk about the diversion down in the state Capitol until we secure the funding to complete these projects up and down the Red River Valley,” Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said Monday.

City Council members again cited concerns that the city, which faces a more than $1 million budget deficit next fiscal year, would be left holding the bag for Minnesota’s share of the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion if it’s authorized and built.

This year’s bonding bill authorized by the state Legislature appropriates $20 million for flood mitigation projects across Minnesota, with priority given to Moorhead. By the end of the month, the city should know how much of that $20 million it will receive, said City Engineer Bob Zimmerman.

Moorhead has about $14.7 million worth of flood projects remaining. Zimmerman said he’s “pretty sure” the city won’t get that amount this year, meaning it’ll have to go back to the Legislature next year to ask for more.

Moorhead has spent about $87 million to buy homes along the Red River and to build its floodwalls to 42.5 feet. Of that, $30 million was local and $57 million came from the state.

There are also projects in Ada, Oakport Township and other cities along the Red. Even if the diversion is fully authorized this year, Marquart said he would still be totally focused on finishing the other projects first.

“I just do not want to go to other legislators around the state with a mixed message with what the priorities are right now,” Marquart said Tuesday. “Number one priority, first and foremost, complete these mitigation projects that are in the works.”

Rep. Ben Lien. DFL-Moorhead, and Sen. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, agree.

“I do have concerns about biting off more than you can chew (at the Capitol),” Eken said Tuesday.

It’s important to finish the Moorhead in-town levees first, Lien said, because that could lower the perceived benefit of the diversion to the Minnesota side, ultimately lowering how much Minnesota pays for the total project.

There also needs to be more unity among the local communities before going to the state, Eken said.

“The state often doesn’t want to get in the middle of local fights,” he said. “There’s plenty of projects out there where local communities have come together, and we need to do that here if we’re going to make it work.”

So it’s “shovel ready” projects first, and diversion second, Lien said. Zimmerman said that timeline makes sense.

Minnesota’s bonding money that could one day be used for the diversion has to be spent on aspects of the project on the Minnesota side, he said.

Even if the diversion is authorized this year – and proponents hope it will be – Zimmerman said diversion construction expenditures next year would likely be on the North Dakota side, so no Minnesota bonding money likely would be needed.

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