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Published June 29, 2009, 04:56 PM

UPDATED: Former ND Gov. Schafer lobbies for flood protection diversion

UPDATED 4:56 p.m.
Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer and several Fargo-area businessmen and politicians today kicked off a lobbying effort for a Red River diversion running through North Dakota to protect Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding communities from flooding.

By: BY Mike Nowatzki and Helmut Schmidt, INFORUM

UPDATED 4:56 p.m.

Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer and several Fargo-area businessmen and politicians today kicked off a lobbying effort for a Red River diversion running through North Dakota to protect Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding communities from flooding.

Schafer is acting as spokesman for the newly formed Flood Protection Coalition for the F-M Community, which has launched a Web site, www.fmfloodcontrol.com.

Schafer said a western diversion would face fewer political problems, and could be cheaper in some respects, than a proposed $909 million diversion channel through Minnesota.

“For politics, for expediency, for cost, we think that the way to go is this,” Schafer said.

As a bonus, he said the channel could follow the Winnepeg diversion model and allow alfalfa to be grown in the dry channel to keep rich farmland in use and provide feed and biomass for fuel.

“We can maintain all but about 600 acres” of the land needed as productive farmland, said Schafer, who served as U.S. agriculture secretary for almost a year under President George W. Bush.

Schafer said his group proposed the plan last week to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is studying flood control alternatives for the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

He had no cost estimate for the project, which the group has proposed start at the Wild Rice River west of Interstate 29 and end north of Argusville, N.D. However, the group’s literature estimates that the federal government would pay about $650 million on a $1 billion project.

The group said the diversion would protect Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo, Oakport, Minn., and Briarwood, Round Hill, Hickson, Horace, Oxbow, Harwood and other North Dakota towns and subdivisions.

Schafer said in a phone interview before the press conference that the group, made up mostly of “business folks,” wants a plan that will provide protection against a 500-year flood level and last 100 years.

By splitting the Red River’s flow, a diversion would provide equal protection on both sides of the river, said Schafer, whose home on Fargo’s Rose Creek Golf Course was surrounded this spring by sandbag and clay dikes.

Schafer said a diversion has some advantages over a dike system, which would require moving homes, building levees that detract from the view of the river and restricting development in certain areas.

“It allows development and investment in the community, which is what our group is interested in,” he said of a diversion.

Schafer noted there has already been pushback on a diversion on the Minnesota side of the river, and the coalition wants to make sure the corps seriously considers a diversion on the North Dakota said.

The coalition’s Web site states that it was set up “by a group of concerned citizens to help the public contact the decision makers involved in getting permanent, comprehensive flood protection for the FM area. We believe the only way to truly protect the FM area is a diversion. Dikes settle, flood walls break, a diversion like Winnipeg built is the best road to long term flood protection.”

The Web site contains a form letter arguing for a diversion as the best flood protection option.

Visitors to the Web site can choose to send the letter to North Dakota or Minnesota officials and corps officials who are studying flood control options for the F-M area.

The North Dakota letter gets sent to Gov. John Hoeven, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and corps project managers Aaron Snyder and Craig Evans.

The Minnesota letter also gets sent to Evans and Snyder, along with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland and state Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead.

The letter states that levees could fail, and that a Fargo-Moorhead diversion wouldn’t have to be as big as the original Red River Floodway built in Winnipeg in the 1960s at a cost of $350 million to $500 million when adjusted to today’s dollars. The corps’ preliminary estimate for a diversion on the Minnesota side is $909 million.

Walaker said he’s been asked by at least one coalition member to support the diversion, but he wasn’t aware of the Web site or today’s press conference.

Walaker said that while “all of us would love a diversion,” he doesn’t believe it will be the corps’ preferred alternative because of its cost.

“The land costs alone are going to be enormous,” he said, noting that land costs were far less when the original Red River Floodway that protects Winnipeg was built in the 1960s.

Budget woes in Congress also may work against a diversion, he said.

“With the money being tight, I can’t imagine that their preferred alternative is going to be the most expensive one,” he said.

Coalition member Mary Alice Bergan, who lives with her husband, Ron, a few blocks from the river in south Fargo, said both their home and business, Fargo Assembly, would have been threatened by floodwaters if river levels had gotten as high as predicted this spring.

“And that kind of scares a person,” she said.

The corps had requested public comments on the various flood control options by June 22, according to the Web site.

Following is the unedited text of the form letter:

“We need a 100 year solution! The only method of flood protection that is sure to work is a diversion.

“Permanent levees could fail, especially at the extreme predictions of possible heights that were projected for F-M in the 2009 flood fight. Levees pose a greater risk of a catastrophic failure.

“The 2009 flood made us realize that a flood over 45 feet is possible. Homes have been destroyed because they were sliding into the river, the old Trollwood and Edgewood clubhouse were sliding into the river, roads, dikes, etc have been damaged by the unstable soil along the river. Building anything 50 plus feet above the river bed and on the banks of the Red River is sure to fail at some point.

“It would not be necessary to reroute all of the water in the Red River around the towns. The Winnipeg diversion has worked great and protected their city in 1997. The floodway capacity was at 60,000 cfs in 1997. The original diversion price adjusted to today was $350 to $500 million. In F-M the river is about 100 feet wide, in Winnipeg the river is about 450 feet wide (nearly 5 times as wide). The red river valley is full of ditches (drains). The diversion would just be a bigger ditch. A bottom width of about 50 feet appears to be what would be required based on the 2009 flow. The flow at Fargo was 29,100 cubic feet per second at 40.82 feet this spring.

“The cost with a smaller diversion could be significantly reduced and should give it a favorable cost benefit ratio. The proposal of the Corps to start at the Wild Rice River and end way north of Harwood is very good. The diversion would offer better protection from overland flooding on the ND side of the river. Property will have to be taken by eminent domain; either homes along the river and drains for dikes and flood walls etc., or farmland for the diversion. The $909 million for the diversion would seem to have much greater benefits than the levees.

“We need to find a way to get a favorable cost benefit ratio or find another way to fund the diversion It should be selected immediately as the preferred method.”