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Marquart threatens to lobby against diversion over ring dike

FARGO – A longtime Minnesota legislator said he will actively lobby against the proposed metro flood diversion if project proponents continue to build an upstream ring dike in North Dakota.

Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth, said he can no longer support the project because the Diversion Authority started building a ring levee around Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke before completion of a Minnesota environmental study of the $1.8 billion, 36-mile flood control channel.

If the Diversion Authority continues construction of the ring dike south of Fargo, Marquart said he would actively lobby against it and possibly sink Minnesota funding for the project. Diversion plans call for Minnesota to chip in $100 million.

“I would say that the Diversion Authority went ahead – knowing Minnesota objections – they went ahead anyway before Minnesota could seriously look at the ramifications for the state of Minnesota and the residents,” Marquart said.

He called the move “heavy-handed” and is urging diversion officials to cease construction of the $65 million ring dike until the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources finishes its environmental impact statement next spring.

Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Diversion Authority, said construction of the ring dike would not cease.

Construction on the levee started late last month. Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke are all within the diversion’s proposed “staging area,” which would hold water during massive floods before channeling the water around the Fargo side of the metro area.

Diversion proponents argue the ring levee has independent utility, meaning it would provide the Oxbow area with certifiable flood protection regardless of the diversion and can be built without the approval of the Minnesota DNR.

“I think people need to understand why we did this,” Vanyo said. “He (Marquart) uses the term ‘heavy-handed.’ I don’t consider that heavy-handed when what we’re trying to do is protect people’s interests in Oxbow, in many ways.”

But Marquart argues that the EIS is a way for Minnesota to protect the interests of its residents, some of whom would also be in the staging area.

The DNR sent a letter to the Diversion Authority earlier this year, warning that pushing forward with the ring levee could violate Minnesota law.

That’s also the heart of a lawsuit filed against the Diversion Authority by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, and the same issue has caused contentious debate at the Moorhead City Council.

But the DNR has also noted that it has no jurisdiction to stop the project because the ring levee is in North Dakota. Marquart conceded that but hopes the Diversion Authority stops building the ring dike anyway. He said in his experience at the Legislature, never has state funding been given to a project that is opposed by its local legislator.

“They’re just not going to do that fight when they can spend the money elsewhere,” Marquart said.

Rep. Ben Lien, DFL-Moorhead, said he’s not ready to talk about funding the diversion until after the environmental study is complete, which he expects next March.

“I’m focusing right now on finishing the projects in my district,” Lien said.

Still, Lien said the EIS could spell out better alternatives to the diversion that have fewer impacts to upstream communities.

With a massive infrastructure project like the diversion, Marquart said it’s important that the two states work together.

“This isn’t just some little project. This is a project of historic proportions for this area,” he said. “We need to make sure we follow the process.”

Vanyo said there is some expectation that Minnesota will contribute something to the project, even if it’s not exactly $100 million. He said Moorhead will benefit from the project directly with lower water levels through town and indirectly because many Moorhead residents work in Fargo.

He said if Minnesota doesn’t pay into the diversion, Moorhead might be going back to the Legislature in a few years to ask for money anyway to help it respond to new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, which he said could end up costing up to $100 million.

“So it’s kind of like which one to you want to do?” Vanyo said. “Do you want to thumb your nose at the diversion and go it alone and seek the $100 million when the time comes through the state for levees or do you want to provide broader protection for a similar amount?”

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Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518