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Published March 01, 2010, 12:00 AM

North Dakota, Minnesota governors endorse flood partnership over federal authority

The governors of North Dakota and Minnesota and leading water officials on both sides of the Red River are endorsing a partnership between the states instead of a federal authority to steer comprehensive flood control.

By: Patrick Springer, INFORUM

The governors of North Dakota and Minnesota and leading water officials on both sides of the Red River are endorsing a partnership between the states instead of a federal authority to steer comprehensive flood control.

Creating a federal authority to take the lead on basinwide flood control appeared to have broad support when leaders of both states met with federal officials at a summit in Washington last May.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who leads a subcommittee that funds water projects, spoke of the need at the meeting to have a “symphony director” with overarching authority.

The idea of a federal authority also had the support of the North Dakota Legislature, which last year passed a resolution urging Congress to establish a Red River Valley Authority.

The resolution noted “certain regulatory conflicts between urban and rural areas and between different states affected by the Red River and its contributing tributaries.”

But one of the legislative resolution’s sponsors, Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, recently reversed his position and went on record opposing a federal Red River Valley Authority.

Fischer, in his capacity as chairman of the Cass County Joint Water Resource District, wrote Dorgan to withdraw his support for a federal authority, which he now dismisses as “another layer of bureaucracy.”

Local and joint water boards in the Red River Valley in both states can work cooperatively to achieve permanent flood control, Fischer said, adding that he acted too hastily in calling earlier for an authority.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven agree that the two states, including their water boards, can work together to coordinate Red River Valley flood control.

Hoeven said the two states are working on a joint powers agreement that can serve as a compact on flood control in place of a federal authority.

“That’s what the water leaders on both sides of the valley said would be the best way to proceed,” Hoeven said. “They think that’s the fastest way to get Red River Valley flood control.”

The view from the governor’s mansion in Minnesota is similar. The states, coordinating with federal agencies including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, can do the job.

“Minnesota is committed to working with North Dakota to develop a long-term, basinwide implementation strategy,” said Brian McClung, a Pawlenty spokesman. “We feel this is an issue best resolved and implemented at the local level using existing watershed organizations and other local partners.”

The two governors were among those who gathered for a roundtable flood control discussion last May, following last spring’s record Red River flood in Fargo-Moorhead.

Based on comments at the meeting, a strong consensus appeared to have been reached for the need of a federal authority with the clout to compel action for comprehensive flood control, The Forum reported at the time.

Dorgan asked if anyone opposed creation of a federal authority, and nobody spoke against the idea, according to The Forum’s reporting of the meeting.

But Pawlenty said he would like to see a group grow from the local level, perhaps evolving from the Red River Basin Commission, which has no authority but is a cooperative body.

Some local officials in Fargo-Moorhead are not convinced a partnership of water boards is the best way to oversee comprehensive flood control, including upstream retention many agree is an important element.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker and Kevin Campbell, a Clay County commissioner and co-chairman of the Metro Flood Study Group, said water boards traditionally have spearheaded drainage, not retention, and are dominated by farmers and other rural interests.

Retention means acquiring large parcels of land to store water upstream, action that draws fierce opposition from farmers, Campbell said.

“That will literally be impossible to do without some sort of authority,” he said. Even small projects get bogged down by controversy.

“Just politically, it seems to me like anytime you want to get anything done with storage you have major obstacles in your way,” Campbell said.

A federal authority still warrants discussion, Walaker said. “I think it needs to be debated. Of course we need retention.”

Fischer and others point to the Maple River Dam in southeast North Dakota as an example of how water boards and the state worked together to build a major water storage project, without federal support.

But Walaker and Campbell said the Maple River Dam is more the exception than the rule in water boards accomplishing a major retention project.

Dorgan, for his part, questions whether anything but a federal authority can provide the comprehensive protection needed throughout the basin, including farms and small communities, which often are overshadowed by the cities.

“If you’re really serious, you need to have the authority,” Dorgan said. “My only interest is let’s do this the right way for the entire valley.”


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

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