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Published June 28, 2009, 12:00 AM

Fargo-Moorhead officials agree communities can’t afford $2.5 billion disaster

Steps taken in March to again protect Fargo-Moorhead from serious flood damage may have prevented a $2.5 billion disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated.

By: Craig McEwen, INFORUM

Steps taken in March to again protect Fargo-Moorhead from serious flood damage may have prevented a $2.5 billion disaster, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated.

“That’s a number that this region can’t afford,” said Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt.

Local elected officials, tired of repeated battles with the Red River, seem to agree that it’s time to install permanent flood protection, said Berndt.

What that may be – a diversion system, dikes, retention ponds or a combination thereof – remains undecided.

In May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said a proposed $909 million Red River diversion channel on the Minnesota side does not meet federal cost benefit requirements.

Another option, a $625 million levee plan for Fargo and Moorhead, which includes Fargo’s Southside Flood Control Project, could possibly pass the corps’ cost-benefit test, said Col. Jon Christensen.

On June 30, Fargo voters will be asked to pass a half-cent sales tax boost to raise $200 million over 20 years for permanent flood protection.

The Corps of Engineers has spent the past 1½ years studying different alternatives. A recommendation is expected no later than December 2010, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

“Everybody seems to have a wish,” said Walaker. “Trying to coordinate all these agencies in the same direction is going to be a long process. We have to be on the same page with the plan. That’s what we’re moving toward.”

Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell said there appears to be real interest on both sides of the river to work together.

Getting hit time and time again with higher and higher water volumes should work in favor of winning permanent flood control, Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said.

“I think the corps, quite honestly, is getting tired of coming up here and building clay dikes and doing all the things they have to do to protect us,” said Voxland.

“I think we are looking to see what the Corps of Engineers’ study proposes; what shakes through in terms of their cost-benefit analysis,” said Vijay Sethi, Clay County administrator.

“If it ends up being the diversion, which it doesn’t look like right now, there are several issues from the county’s perspective that need to be addressed,” Sethi said.

They include lost tax revenues incurred by taking farmland out of production to build a flood control structure, cost, maintenance and location, said Clay County Commission Chairman Jerry Waller.

Some have questioned why, with more flooding occurring on the North Dakota side, is only Minnesota being considered for a diversion, Berndt said.

“I think that’s a fair question, and I think that deserves a fair shake,” he said. “That said, my expectation is that there’s going to be some real financial and technical complexities with that type of project on the North Dakota side.”

Any opportunities to include upstream water retention should be pursued as a component of the flood protection plan, said Berndt.

“While everybody is in favor of retention, I have yet to have anybody walk in my door and offer up their land for it,” he said.

On May 5, the governors of North Dakota and Minnesota, local, state and federal officials met with top leaders from the Corps of Engineers at the U.S. Capitol to discuss permanent flood control.

On May 27, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., held a hearing of the U.S. Senate’s Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee at the Fargodome.

The hearing was held to document the need for Congress to fund permanent flood protection for the Fargo-Moorhead area and Red River basin.

“We have the best opportunity we’ve ever had to get any significant flood protection for our city,” said Walaker.

He would like to see the bar set high enough to protect Fargo-Moorhead from a 250-year flood, similar to what Grand Forks and East Grand Forks did following the 1997 flood.

“I think that should be our minimum,” said Walaker. “I think the city of Fargo and the city of Moorhead need to be protected up to 45 feet with 3 feet of freeboard.”

Walaker says he’s confident that the entities involved will resolve any differences and have permanent flood protection in place in 12 years or less.

Voxland would like to see the project finished in less time.

“Ideally, I’d like to see it sooner, but I’m not sure, given the cost in dollars and the way the federal process works, if that’s even possible,” he said.

Walaker said his biggest concern is complacency. “Right now we have people in the communities willing to support us. But time changes that,” he said.

Keeping the public – residents, businesses, colleges – involved and informed will be very important, Voxland said.

“It’s going to be critical, because at some point tough decisions are going to be made,” he said.

“Whatever those answers are is going to affect a lot of people. And not doing anything is going to affect a lot of people,” said Voxland. “So we have to keep citizens involved at every step.”

Berndt says he’s optimistic that a permanent flood protection plan will be approved.

“I just think it’s too important for anybody to not keep pushing on it until it is built,” he said.

“If we lose this time and we don’t get permanent flood protection, I can’t imagine we will ever get it done without losing the (flood) battle,” Walaker said.


Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Craig McEwen at (701) 241-5502

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