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Editorial: Thanks to task force, diversion has viable path forward

There is fresh reason for optimism that the contentious diversion to protect the Fargo-Moorhead metro area from catastrophic flooding will get built. The task force assembled by Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Gov. Doug Burgum of North Dakota was able to reach partial consensus on the way forward for the diversion project. As with everything else about the diversion, it's complicated, expensive and won't please everybody.

Importantly, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which refused to grant a permit for the diversion's dam in the original design, was at the table in the task force discussions, along with Dayton. Minnesota objected because officials concluded that too much land in Minnesota would be flooded by a temporary water impoundment area, and pushed for a smaller protective footprint in order to reduce the upstream impact area. The flood project's main benefit would be on the North Dakota side of the Red River, where it would protect 11,000 homes, compared to 1,000 homes in Minnesota.

The task force generally agreed to shift the dam's footprint farther west, into North Dakota. It also agreed to allow more water to flow through Fargo-Moorhead. Previously, the plan was to allow a river crest of 35 feet, but the task force consensus was to raise that to 37 feet. By comparison, the record 2009 flood crested at 40.84 feet.

One of the hard-to-resolve questions remaining is where to place the dam. The task force considered three locations, each north of the original, closer to Fargo-Moorhead. Each location has its advantages and drawbacks; there was some discussion of joining two of the sites in a long "super dam," but the task force was unable to reach a consensus on the dam's best location.

The dialogue now should continue with the engineers and other technical experts who advised the task force to determine the best place to locate the dam, given the Minnesota concerns, and other nagging issues. The progress achieved by the task force was made possible by the hard work of the technical advisers, working under tight deadlines.

We urge the Diversion Authority and elected officials in North Dakota and Minnesota to keep working with the technical experts—and to follow their advice. The end result will cost more. Depending on the dam alignment, the cost of the $2.2 billion project will climb by $135 million to $270 million, and that estimate doesn't include other cost increases. Permanent flood protection will be expensive, but well worth it.

We commend Dayton and the Minnesota DNR for their earnest participation in the task force. They were actively engaged in the search for viable answers, and made the task force listen to the upstream concerns. It's too early to celebrate; the road ahead remains long and difficult. Officials must press on as "the rubber meets the road" to resolve the stubborn sticking points that remain. But there now appears to be a viable path forward for the diversion, crucial to securing the metro area's future. That's good news.

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

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