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Earth moving equipment is busy south of Oxbow and Hickson constructing a ring dike as seen Friday, August 1, 2014. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Gov. Dayton speaks out against F-M diversion, calls Minnesota impact 'unacceptable'

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Gov. Dayton speaks out against F-M diversion, calls Minnesota impact 'unacceptable'
Fargo ND 101 5th Street North 58102

MOORHEAD – Gov. Mark Dayton and his administration will “do everything to ensure that Minnesota’s best interests are not trampled” by the proposed diversion project to protect Fargo-Moorhead from severe floods, a spokesman said.


Dayton stands squarely behind the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which recently sought to join a lawsuit by upstream opponents of the $1.8 billion project.

Minnesota’s action was taken after the Diversion Authority began building a ring dike this spring to protect the communities of Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke subdivision, all on the North Dakota side of the Red River. The communities would otherwise be flooded when the diversion is used during floods.

The Minnesota DNR asked the Diversion Authority not to start on the ring dike until it completes its environmental review of the project, a study expected next spring.

The Diversion Authority went ahead with the ring dike, saying it is needed to protect flood-prone areas regardless of whether the 36-mile diversion channel is built, and is independent of that project.

Minnesota’s Wilkin County and North Dakota’s Richland County have joined together in a federal lawsuit to oppose a feature of the diversion project called upstream storage, which would temporarily hold water over an area of 32,500 acres when the river is 35 feet or higher.

“Flood relief which would greatly benefit North Dakota, and damage property in Minnesota, is unacceptable, as are attempts to override our state’s environmental review procedures and permitting authority,” Matt Swenson, Dayton’s press secretary, said in a statement to The Forum.

Call for negotiation

An analysis by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is designing the project in partnership with the Diversion Authority, initially estimated Minnesota would receive 10 percent of the project’s benefits, a formula heavily weighted by property at risk.

As the project has progressed, Minnesota’s share of benefits appears smaller, about 6 percent – an analysis that may have softened support for the diversion, especially on the east side of the river, while upstream opposition has intensified on both sides of the river.

The statement from Dayton’s administration comes about three weeks after Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, publicly opposed the ring dike construction, saying he’ll lobby against any state funding for the diversion unless it stops to wait for the DNR review.  

In recent days, one of the few public figures in Minnesota to come out strongly for the project is Morrie Lanning, former longtime mayor of Moorhead and a former state representative.

In an interview, Lanning, a Republican, said he believes the feud over the proposed Fargo-Moorhead diversion project should be settled by negotiators instead of lawyers. He thinks Minnesota took the wrong path by moving to join the opponents’ lawsuit.

“I think it’s very unfortunate that the DNR has decided to be part of the lawsuit here,” Lanning said. “I think that’s harmful to Minnesota-North Dakota relations.”

Lanning and at least one sitting Minnesota lawmaker, Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake, called on Dayton to appoint a high-level team of negotiators to try to settle the dispute.

“To my knowledge, that hasn’t been happening,” Lanning said, adding that it would be helpful if North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple also tried to resolve the dispute by naming a team of high-level negotiators.

Swenson’s comments about Dayton and his administration doing everything to ensure that “Minnesota’s best interests are not trampled” by the diversion came in response to questions about whether the governor is willing to try to resolve the dispute through negotiation.

“If the Diversion Authority sincerely desires a cooperative relationship with the state of Minnesota,” Swenson wrote, “it needs to reform its current practices.”

In North Dakota, a spokesman for Dalrymple said the governor has not been asked to intervene and has no plans to do so.

“At this point, it’s a legal matter,” said Jeff Zent, Dalrymple’s communications director. “That’s going to have to be worked out in those channels. It’s in litigation.”

Negotiation in water disputes has shown it can produce breakthroughs, Lanning said. As an example, he said Manitoba for years opposed releasing Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne River, which flows into the Red River, because of concerns about high levels of sulfates and other dissolved solids.

Gradually, however, Manitoba came to agree on revised water standards that allowed Devils Lake outlets to pump more water to hold down the lake’s level.

The notion that Minnesota has little to gain from the diversion because much of Moorhead is higher than Fargo fails to acknowledge Fargo’s importance as an employer for Moorhead and Clay County, Lanning said.

It’s understandable that landowners and officials south of Fargo-Moorhead have concerns about diversion impacts, he added, but said it is unreasonable to argue there should be no impacts.

“They want absolutely no impact,” Lanning said. “Those who want no impact, I’m sorry, that’s not reality.”

Back to drawing board?

McNamar, whose district includes Wilkin County, favors negotiation to resolve the diversion dispute, but he also supports the DNR’s attempt to join the lawsuit against the diversion – a request that’s still pending judicial approval.

McNamar said Wilkin and Richland counties being united in their opposition is a strong sign that the Diversion Authority and Corps of Engineers should go back to the drawing board to eliminate the upstream impacts.

“Is that telling you something when you have North Dakota and Minnesota residents joining together?” McNamar said. “To me, that says open your eyes.”

A counterpart across the river in North Dakota, Sen. Larry Luick, R-Fairmont, expressed similar views. Landowners in Richland and Wilkin counties would not benefit from the diversion and should not have to see their land inundated even temporarily by the project, he said.

North Dakota leaders remain committed to state support for the diversion project. So far, North Dakota has approved $175 million toward a possible $450 million contribution. Diversion backers had hoped Minnesota could contribute up to $100 million.

Zent, Dalrymple’s spokesman, said the state will continue to help fund the project, together with local and federal partners.

“As the project unfolds, we will match state dollars with federal and local cost shares,” Zent said.

Congress has authorized the diversion plan but has not yet funded it. The federal share of the project is expected to be $800 million. Plans call for Cass County and Fargo to jointly put a total of $450 million toward the flood control project.

Wider view urged

Although Wilkin and Richland counties advocate widespread retention as an alternative to the diversion’s upstream storage area, they have not contributed with any flood retention projects, Lanning said.

On the other hand, Fargo-Moorhead supported the diversion channel that helps protect Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn., from flooding, even though it means flood crests travel downstream more rapidly, allowing less time for preparation, Lanning said.

The diversion projects are vastly different in scope, however. The Wahpeton-Breckenridge diversion finished in 2005 cost about $8 million and was only three miles long.

Still, officials in both Minnesota and North Dakota should remember to view Red River Valley water issues as related, Lanning said. Besides their shared interest in solving flood problems, they also must work together to ensure water supply in times of drought, he said.

Although several Minnesota communities are protected by ring dikes in the Red River Valley, North Dakota has not objected, Lanning said.

“If everybody’s only looking out for themselves, we’re not going to solve our water problems in the basin,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522

Patrick Springer
Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to