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Mikkel Pates, Published March 23 2014

Farmers question future in face of F-M diversion plan

MOORHEAD - Mark Askegaard is one of scores of farmers south of Fargo-Moorhead who are using the courts and political influence against a $1.8 billion Red River flood diversion project they say will forever change their lives, land and towns.

A fourth-generation farmer, Askegaard, 53, says he’d rather be thinking only about planting and marketing crops this time of year, but instead he’s preoccupied with the epic issue.

In Askegaard’s mind, the diversion needlessly undermines the productivity of thousands of acres of the Red River Valley’s best and most valuable farmland, and is moving ahead despite no solid solutions for crop insurance in that area.

It is billed as the best, most cost-effective way of protecting the existing Fargo-Moorhead and Cass County property from flooding, but Askegaard and other critics say they’re suffering the effects of a city simply wanting to develop land in a natural floodplain.

Rodger D. Olson disagrees. He’s a Leonard, N.D., farmer, Red River Diversion Authority member and co-chair with Askegaard on an agricultural subcommittee for the project. He says the groups are working toward crop insurance solutions and the priorities for the project are effectiveness and safety. While his own farm isn’t affected by flooding or diversion impacts, some of his family’s land is – his children went to school in Kindred, N.D., which would feel the effects.

“I look at it as flood protection of almost 200,000 people,” Olson says. “What is that value? I look at it as protection for a hospital I might need, 40 miles away. I don’t get a direct benefit here at my home. I have an indirect benefit from what’s protected there.”

Details of the plan

Askegaard’s great-grandfather came from Norway in 1890 and settled around Hickson, N.D. After a big flood in 1897, the family moved across the river near Comstock, Minn. Askegaard has managed the farm since 1982 and started transitioning to organic crops in 1994. His daughter, Beth, 23, also is in the operation. The Askegaards are among a handful of farmers in a 7-mile radius who raise some 5,500 acres of certified organic grains.

Since the record flood of 40.8 feet in Fargo in 2009, Askegaard says the project has developed in ways he never could have imagined.

“We’re sitting above the 500-year flood plain on the Minnesota side here. We never got flooded after that,” Askegaard says. If the diversion goes through as planned, his 900 acres would be within the “red box,” a term for areas that will see more than 1 foot of floodwater.

The “original diversion” was discussed as coming onto the Minnesota side, and would have been farther north at the Red River and Wild Rice River confluence. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and others protested that because Minnesota’s topography was 5.5 feet higher, and Minnesota communities weren’t suffering as much as Fargo and Cass County. That was scuttled in the spring of 2010.

The Red River Diversion Authority contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which settled on new plans for diversions on the North Dakota side, moving the impacts upstream, or to the south (the Red River flows north).

The plan called for the project to retain water in a specified area, where the impact would be more predictable. There would be a control structure, a 13-foot-tall dam on the river, and tie-back levies.

When the diversion is used, it could impact 50,000 acres upstream (south) from Fargo with between 1 inch and 8.5 feet of water.

Askegaard’s place, 10 miles south of Moorhead, theoretically would have 3 feet of water, a ring dike and some land would be lost to the diversion dike. He says there are no assurances on how multi-peril crop insurance will be handled in shallower areas flooded by the diversion. Standard crop insurance can’t be used when the damage is manmade. In addition, the Askegaards’ crops wouldn’t be certified organic after being submerged in floodwater.

Compensation plans

In 2013, the Diversion Authority unveiled plans to compensate businesses and communities for impacts from the project. The plan would involve buyouts and “flowage easement” compensations on the 32,000 acres of farmland that would be hit with more than 1 foot of water.

Olson has been a key figure in the discussion because of his position on several boards. To name just a few: Cass County Joint Water Resource District board and the Red River Diversion Authority, as well as its subcommittees on outreach, land management and agriculture. While Olson says he’s aware of the unhappiness of farmers affected by the project, he says the multi-peril crop insurance coverage concern is “one of the important things” on his mind.

The Diversion Authority has contracted with Watts & Associates of Billings, Mont., to find crop insurance solutions. About 20,000 acres would see 1 foot of water or less, outside the red box area of the most concern.

The possibilities for a solution aren’t solid enough for the MnDak Upstream Coalition, which was formed in May 2010. Scott Hendrickson, a farmer from Colfax, N.D., and former chairman of the North Dakota Soybean Growers, is the chairman.

Hendrickson says the group wants to protect Fargo and Cass County’s infrastructure, but only at a “reasonable” cost, and without inflicting harm elsewhere. He says farmers need answers and think the project is draconian.

Project opponents point to the Halstad Upstream Retention Study, released in late January 2014 by the Red River Basin Commission and funded by the Diversion Authority. It showed that a “distributed storage” project, involving up to 96 retention areas on upstream tributaries, could cut flood volumes on the Red River mainstem by more than 20 percent.

Askegaard says that cut would reduce Fargo-Moorhead’s river levels by up to 3 feet in a 100-year event, if other internal levee protections were in place. The peak Red River crest was 40.8 feet in Fargo in the record flood of 2009, so the distributed storage option – coupled with internal protections – could cut it below 38 feet, Askegaard reasons. That’s significant because Fargo will be protected up to 42.5 feet and Moorhead will be at 44 feet with another

$6 million of investment.

The Diversion Authority, on its website, labels this criticism as misinformation.

Engineering models indicate it would take 400,000 to 600,000 acre feet of retention to replace the 215,000 acre feet in the recommendation.

Olson says the retention areas have value to farmers just below them, but less value than diversion opponents think. He notes that if the impoundments were built, most of them would have to be in Richland and Wilkin counties, where opposition is the greatest.

Juggernaut rolls on

While opponents question the rationale and effects, the diversion project continues to grind forward with support from the North Dakota congressional delegation and the state Legislature.

Another $6.3 million in federal appropriation was announced for Corps of Engineers funding, bringing the total to

$40 million. Minnesota’s delegation has favored flood protection for the metropolitan area, but less directly.

Minnesota’s Rep. Peterson has made it no secret that he likes upland storage.

“Frankly, we’re over-building and spending a bunch of money that we don’t need to spend,” he told a meeting of diversion opponents on Jan. 23 in Comstock. He says impoundment projects are gaining favor, citing the successful North Ottawa Project, 25 miles south of Breckenridge, Minn.

In August 2013, the MnDak Upstream Coalition and the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority filed a lawsuit in Wilkin County, suing the Corps of Engineers and contending the diversion plan violates Minnesota state law that prohibits blocking an outlet or a ditch. Some $250,000 has been raised for legal costs. A hearing will be held April 3 and 4 in Duluth before a state magistrate.

No cooling rhetoric

Tim Fox, state’s attorney for Wilkin County and the city of Breckenridge, Minn., who advises the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, says Fargo is “morally corrupt” because it allows houses to be built in a natural flood plain, dispersing water to much larger areas that don’t flood naturally.

He likens it to one farmer wanting to build grain bins draining water onto another farm, just because the neighbor had fewer grain bins.

“It’s okay for me to do it, because he’s going to have two grain bins and I’m going to have 50,” Fox says. “I should be able to flood him because I want to be bigger.”

The diversion’s flowage easements allow the land to be flooded at any time and for any amount of time, Fox says. He contends the project will block numerous ditches, which will spread water for miles.

“It’s the blockage of those outlets that’s going to have dramatic impact on many, many acres far beyond what the scope of this project is,” Fox says, adding that it will have a negative impact on grain elevators, fertilizer plants, implement dealers and the economies as a whole.

Perry Miller, a businessman, a former farmer and Richland County commissioner for the past 11 years, is chairman of the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority. The JPA includes about 40 taxing entities (townships, fire departments and the like) working to fight off negative effects of the diversion project.

Miller contends an easement for water flowage is a much bigger deal than a standard, 100-foot-wide easement for a gas line.

“Because of these flowage easements, you’re done building on entire sections of land, permanently,” he says. “These entire sections of land become a building ‘dead zone.’ ”

The Diversion Authority says the water staging area will not be a dead zone. Farming will continue in it, and it will “only operate under flood events larger than a 10-year event.”

Miller says his constituents tell him to keep fighting to change the project. The farmers live with crop insurance uncertainty, and the Kindred School District has sacrificed its future growth on tens of thousands of acres so Fargo can develop in a flood plain, Miller says. The Fargo School District built the $45 million Davies High School in the middle of a flood plain with no vote. Construction started in the fall of 2009 and its dedication was held Aug. 21, 2011.

“It’s like, ‘We’re going to win, and you’re going to lose. Here’s a check; you can sit down and be quiet.’ That’s the attitude,” Miller says. “This thing is a wolf of a development plan, disguised in the sheep’s clothing of flood control.”

A ‘reasonable’ cost

The city of Fargo says it’s followed all federal floodplain management and flood insurance program rules and has “actually adopted rules for development that exceed what is required under federal and state law.”

On its website, the Diversion Authority acknowledges only that a “small amount of future development was included in the economic analysis, consistent with Corps policy, based on current growth rates; all future development was assumed to be constructed” above the 100-year floodplain, and “represents a small portion of the economic benefits.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, a member of the Diversion Authority, says a “small, vocal minority in Wilkin and Richland counties are basically trying to stop the project.”

He says the soils in Fargo won’t allow protection to the 44-foot level that is needed. He says the city has purchased 500 to 600 homes and has another 100 to go. If the dam were moved farther north, it would take another 250 homes. He says Fargo needs something akin to Winnipeg, Manitoba, which has 700-year protection.

As for the crop insurance concerns, Walaker relies on Olson and the ag committee to come up with solution recommendations.

“We’ll do whatever we have to,” he says.