BRECKENRIDGE, Minn. – Gov. Mark Dayton had strong words for the contentious $1.8 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project at a meeting Tuesday with local and state officials that attracted a large public audience here.

Dayton listened as commissioners, mayors, state regulators and farmers voiced their fierce opposition to the 36-mile channel that would divert major floodwaters around Fargo-Moorhead. It would submerge huge swaths of farmland south of Fargo and Moorhead.

“You don’t induce damages on other people when you build protection,” said Breckenridge Mayor Cliff Barth, seated next to Dayton at the front of a crowded room at the courthouse here.

The governor’s words were no less strong.

“If you’re going to kick sand in the face of Minnesota,” Dayton said, “... it will come back to haunt you. I’m certain of that.”

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Dayton called for balance on the nine-member Diversion Authority, which has just two Minnesotans – a number he called “absolutely unacceptable” for there to be “a process that’s supposed to represent the interest of both states.”

Longtime activists against the proposed diversion thanked Dayton for recently deciding to speak out on the issue, turning up the heat on the Diversion Authority.

No one from the Diversion Authority or the city of Fargo was at the table with Dayton.

Officials and members of the public told the governor that there was a lack of dialogue, and inconsistencies in studies and statements by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is building the project. They say the flooding of farmland would devastate affected areas.

As part of the diversion, the Diversion Authority has started construction of a ring dike around three communities – Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke. The communities south of Fargo are within the diversion’s proposed staging area, which would be intentionally flooded during major floods to hold back water before it moves through the channel.

Dayton has urged the corps to stop its work on the diversion until the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources completes an environmental review.

Perry Miller, chairman of the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, which has sued the Diversion Authority over the project, said the diversion is a way for Fargo to pass its flooding problem onto others.

“This is a means of relocating the problem,” Miller said.

He said the diversion would devastate the tax base in affected areas and flood some fifth-generation farms for the sake of protecting Fargo and land south of the city that could prove ripe for expansion.

“This is an expansion plan for Fargo,” Miller said.

During public comment, one Richland County landowner bemoaned the makeup of the current Diversion Authority.

“The authority is made entirely of proponents,” Leah Rogne said. “We have no real dialogue.”

At the end of the hour-long forum, Dayton cautioned that a sour relationship between the two states could jeopardize federal funding for the congressionally approved project.

“I served six years in the U.S. Senate,” Dayton said. “Authorization and appropriation are very different matters.”

Without regional cooperation, he said, “you’re not going to get the money.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Adrian Glass-Moore at (701) 241-5502