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Officials seek solution over water supply project hurdle

An aerial view of the Lake Audubon embankment, which separates lake Sakakawea, to the west, and Lake Audubon. Lake Audubon is the preferred source of water for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which would divert Missouri River water to the Red River Valley in times of prolonged drought. Photo special to Forum News Service.

BISMARCK—Officials planning the Red River Water Supply Project hope for a quick resolution to a dispute over federal plans that could affect the project's water source.

Lawmakers were briefed during a meeting Tuesday, July 25, at the state Capitol on the status of the project, which would pipe Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota during droughts. Ken Vein, second vice chairman of the Garrison Diversion Board, said they hope to receive the first construction bids in early 2019.

But project planning has been complicated in recent weeks when the Army Corps of Engineers proposed limiting the difference in water elevation between Lake Audubon and Lake Sakakawea over safety concerns with the Snake Creek Embankment, which divides the two water bodies and is topped by U.S. Highway 83. If the level of Lake Audubon drops below a certain level, "the ability to deliver water through the McClusky Canal is impacted," State Engineer Garland Erbele wrote in a July 13 letter to a corps official.

Vein said the McClusky Canal is the preferred choice for the source of the water supply project.

"To suddenly suggest that the water supply for that project is now in question because of a geotechnical issue at the Snake Creek Embankment that has been known since the embankment's construction introduces an unacceptable air of uncertainty for development of that project," Erbele wrote to Kellie Bergman, the corps' water control and water quality section chief.

Erbele's letter also raised concerns about interruptions in water supply for "established irrigation demands along the canal," as well as impacts to wildlife and recreational uses in the Painted Woods Creek watershed. The letter was copied to Gov. Doug Burgum and the state's congressional delegation.

"There are other solutions available," Erbele wrote. "Let's work together to implement one of those solutions rather than simply taking what, on the surface, may appear to be the least expensive solution."

Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, said they're working with an engineering firm to study corps data to see "if there isn't a better answer out there," arguing that the corps "hit the easy button too fast." He was unsure how soon a solution could be found, however.

Vein hopes an answer comes quickly as the water supply project progresses. The state Legislature set aside up to $30 million for the project in the current two-year funding cycle, $13 million of which is for construction.

"It doesn't stop the Red River project, it just means we have to go back to our original plan to come out of the (Missouri River)," Vein said. Using the canal would save an estimated $171 million from the $1 billion project, however.

A corps official did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. A hydraulic engineer for the corps previously said their focus would be to preserve the embankment, which the agency said could fail during severe drought in the Missouri River basin.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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