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Editorial: Unacceptable risk to Fargo's backup water supply

Now that Fargo finds itself on the cusp of drought it's worth recalling that, for most of the city's history, leaders have fretted more about the lack of water than flooding. For decades the city has been interested in bringing water from the Missouri River to augment local water supplies. Fargo is one of the local governments behind the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which is an outgrowth of the now-defunct Garrison Diversion Project, abandoned by the federal government. Spearheaded by the state, plans for the water supply project have been moving along. Lawmakers have appropriated $30 million for the project in 2017-19, including money to enable construction to start. If fully realized, it could provide water for half of North Dakota's population. But, as if right on cue, the federal government has thrown up a new obstacle.

State leaders would like to use some old Garrison Diversion features, the Snake Creek Pumping Station and the McClusky Canal, as the intake for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project. The state has been negotiating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns the public works, to do just that. The talks have gone well—until the Corps of Engineers threw a wrench in the cogs. The corps recently announced that it has safety concerns about the Snake Creek Embankment, a dam that divides Lake Sakakawea, the reservoir of Garrison Dam, and adjacent Lake Audubon.

Lake Audubon was created to feed Garrison Diversion with water. As such, it's been underworked for decades—but can be a critical and cost-effective component for delivering water to the east, as it was intended to do. The problem is that, during periods of prolonged drought, the level of Lake Sakakawea can drop sharply. That happened during the drought of 2005-06, when Lake Audubon was 41 feet above Lake Sakakawea. Engineers fear that imbalances of 43 feet or higher threaten failure of the embankment. To prevent that, when the differences reaches 43 feet, the corps proposes to release water from Audubon into Sakakawea.

If that were to happen, it's possible there wouldn't be enough water in Lake Audubon to serve as the intake for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project—which, after all, is intended to provide a backup in times of prolonged drought.

In other words, the corps' proposed "fix" for the Snake Creek Embankment would negate the very reason for Lake Audubon, the Snake Creek Pumping Station and McClusky Canal when they're most needed. Clearly, releasing water from Audubon is an unacceptable solution. The corps should reinforce the embankment to preserve full function for the lake and associated works. North Dakota—which sacrificed 550,000 acres of prime land for Garrison Dam, mostly to benefit other states—should not be penalized for the embankment's design flaws.

Editorials represent the views of Forum management and the Editorial Board.