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Kyle Potter, Published August 12 2013

F-M diversion leaders on the defensive at Christine town hall meeting

CHRISTINE, N.D. – Diversion leaders were on the defensive about the proposed Fargo-Moorhead flood division project at a town hall here Monday night.

A crowd of more than 100 packed into the town’s community center for the meeting organized and moderated by the MnDak Upstream Coalition, a group critical of the diversion.

Most of their questions posed to members of the Diversion Authority Board focused on the impact the $1.8 billion project will have on farmlands and townships south of the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

In many cases, Diversion Authority Chairman Darrel Vanyo and other project proponents said they didn’t yet have answers.

“There are a lot of details. How can you … have those questions unknown?” asked Nathan Berseth, the upstream coalition’s spokesman and one of the emcees for the question-and-answer session.

“Often times, we’re sharing information with the public before we have all the answers,” responded Keith Berndt, Cass County administrator. “It’s a chicken or egg, but we’ve chosen to keep the public involved throughout the process.”

The project would dig a 36-mile channel west of West Fargo to divert flood waters away from the metro. It also calls for a $65 million ring dike to be built around Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke, and would create a “staging area” where water from severe floods would collect upstream to feed into the diversion channel.

Audience members submitted questions in advance for Richland County Commissioner Perry Miller, another diversion critic, and Berseth to read aloud: How would farm owners be compensated if flood waters hinder their productivity? How will the project affect property values inside the staging area? And what will happen with cemeteries that may be underwater in the event of a serious flood?

Greg Hanson, who lives just south of Hickson, said the answers to those questions were few and far between.

“I didn’t learn a thing,” he said. “My lack of trust is huge.”

Hanson, like Berseth, was incredulous that the project has been in the works for four-plus years, and yet there still aren’t answers to some of the questions about how his farm will be affected. Construction may begin on the Oxbow ring dike as soon as next year.

Diversion leaders have conducted a handful of forums south of the metro, where opposition to the project is the strongest. Berndt acknowledged there are many unanswered questions, but said they’re working on it.

Berseth repeatedly raised the same question about the Oxbow-Hickson-Bakke ring dike: Why was Oxbow’s approval of the ring dike considered, but two votes that showed a majority of Hickson and Bakke residents opposed the levee were not?

“Why were they asked to take a vote, and then it was completely ignored?” he asked, prompting applause from the crowd.

Vanyo said the board has “a legal right to make a decision for those that are not an incorporated city.” The Diversion Authority reached a memorandum of understanding with Oxbow earlier this year.

He stressed that every part of the project – from the ring dike to the 36-mile flood channel itself – would benefit residents if completed, including those south of the metro area.

“It is to protect them just as much as it is to protect anyone in the Fargo-Moorhead area,” he said.

“Well, we could go into a long debate about that,” Berseth said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502