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Corps considers changes to F-M diversion

Officials talk to the press after a closed-door meeting about the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion Wednesday, Oct. 11, at the Fargo Public Library. From left to right are Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Diversion Authority Vice Chairwoman and Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; and Col. Sam Calkins from the corps. Tu-Uyen Tran / The Forum

FARGO — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can modify the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion to meet Minnesota regulators' demands, though there are some limits, Maj. Gen. Richard Kaiser told reporters here Wednesday, Oct. 11.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said this could mean reducing the volume of water stored behind a dam upstream of the diversion channel and storing it elsewhere.

Kaiser, commander of the corps' Mississippi Valley Division, which includes eastern and northern North Dakota, was in town to meet with local officials involved in the $2.2 billion flood control project and Hoeven was his host.

Coincidentally, the day Kaiser took command of the division after returning from duty in Afghanistan, Sept. 7, was the same day a federal judge issued an injunction, temporarily halting the project because Minnesota regulators had said it requires a dam permit from them.

The Wednesday meeting was closed to the public but much of the talk during the press conference that followed had to do with potential modifications to the project as a way to appease Minnesota.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who was at Wednesday's meeting, had recently agreed with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to form a task force to hammer out a compromise. Dayton was invited to the meeting but declined because he had earlier planned to meet with Kaiser Tuesday, Oct. 10, only to fall ill.

The basic parameters, Burgum said, are to ensure the region is protected from a 100-year flood, as certified by the federal flood insurance program; to not modify the diversion project beyond the project authorized by congress, which would push the clock back seven to 10 years; and to allay concerns by upstream and downstream property owners.

"There will be some political solutions," he said. "There will be some engineering solutions. There will be some listening as well."

Congressional authorization for a new project by the already overburdened corps is very rare, so diversion supporters fear losing that authorization.

Hoeven said he had included language in the funding bill for the corps that allows more modification of the project. "I'm trying to get them some flexibility to make modifications that hopefully can help effectuate a compromise," he said.

Legally, there may be more flexibility than many might imagine.

"To remain within that federal authorization, there has to be a diversion channel in North Dakota, a southern embankment and minimal downstream impacts," said Terry Williams, the corps' diversion project manager.

That means the embankment, or dam, that's so controversial to Minnesota regulators could move farther north, reducing the amount of floodplain that would be protected. The state's Department of Natural Resources have complained too much land would not flood, displacing flood waters onto upstream landowners.

Williams said the corps had agreed to move the dam a mile north in 2013 to its present location running east from an area just south of Horace. The present location is a reasonable compromise, she said, because moving the dam farther north, because of the terrain, would require a taller and longer dam, increasing costs by "tens of millions" of dollars.

None of the officials present were prepared to say exactly what modifications are under consideration, however.

Kaiser said initially the changes were too complicated to go into at the press conference. When pressed if the dam would be affected, he said "I'm going to defer all those questions to the technical working group because that's not what we were discussing in that room."

The "working group" is apparently the task force the governors agreed to form.

"You may be able to make changes that would affect how much water is stored upstream," Hoeven added. "I don't know if that means a change to the embankment or not, but it may mean changes that might reduce some of the storage and where it's stored. That's where the policy-makers have to have that discussion."

The senator said one of the key things discussed at the meeting was that there aren't any immediate technical hurdles to the project. The real question, he said, is whether policymakers can agree on what the project ought to be like.

Diversion Authority Vice Chairwoman Del Rae Williams, who's also the mayor of Moorhead, agreed.

"We've got the technical things in place," she said. "What needs to happen now is the policy people need to get together."

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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