Red River Basin Commission could see its role expandIf herding the opinions of all the stakeholders is the biggest challenge to building more flood control for the Red River, there’s good news.
By: Dave Roepke, INFORUM
If herding the opinions of all the stakeholders is the biggest challenge to building more flood control for the Red River, there’s good news.
An organization that has the relevant parties at the same table exists: the Red River Basin Commission.
For now, the commission is a jointly funded group that has the structure to find cohesion but lacks the legal muscle for coercion. It could end up with wider influence and power if the calls for a border-spanning agency with more regulatory authority are heard.
“If that doesn’t happen, if there isn’t an equal partnership, it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to get permanent solutions put in place,” said Morrie Lanning, a state representative from Moorhead.
The idea for such a group was supported at a meeting of local, state and federal officials in May in Washington, D.C. It’s a concept that’s not new. Lanning was pushing for a similar group as far back as 1979.
Airing the old idea anew in Washington came after Lanning and Tom Fischer, a counterpart in the North Dakota Legislature, both backed bills this spring to give a total of $1 million to the Basin Commission for studying flood protection measures.
Basin Commission board members voted earlier this month to use the money to come up with a basinwide flood plan it will deliver in the next two years to the water boards in each state. It’s the role Lanning sees for a basin group: evaluating and recommending.
Whether or not the commission’s plan includes a stronger basin authority is undecided, said Executive Director Lance Yohe.
“That’s really the question everybody’s asking right now, and I don’t know if anybody has a clear answer on how to do that,” Yohe said.
If a basin authority comes to be, the Basin Commission is a logical place to start. With each seat filled, the group’s board has 43 members – representatives from the water boards, cities, counties, tribes, environmental communities, residents and state-level governments of Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota. South Dakota also has two seats, and each federal legislator can seat a nonvoting staffer.
It’s the only place where that wide a range of interests are gathered. And a big table is what’s need to hammer out the political problems posed by the 45,000-square-mile river basin, which by Yohe’s count is home to as many as 500 government jurisdictions.
It’s not just the quantity of political subdivisions, said Collin Peterson, the Democrat who represents Moorhead in Congress. The area also covers two different federal regions, which can mean varying interpretations of federal rules on either side of the river.
Approval from the states, Congress and perhaps even Canada would be needed if the group would have any extra legal authority. If that happens, participation might need to stick to elected officials.
“I’m reluctant to put very much power in the hands of people who aren’t elected,” Peterson said. “To make this effective, you have to have the political people basically at the table to make this work.”
Though there may be roadblocks, Lanning thinks political organization in the basin would provide better leverage to urge, for example, state regulators in Minnesota to green light water retention projects that may otherwise be rejected.
On the other hand, statutory power may not be necessary if there is a central group that holds the purse strings, Yohe said.
“If you give an authority money, maybe you don’t need much authority,” he said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535