FARGO-With the stroke of a pen on Monday, July 11, a federal official formally committed his agency to help build the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, the Red River Valley’s largest and most costly public works project.
Lowry Crook, a top civil works official with the U.S. Army, watched as the crowd filling The Stage at Island Park rose to its feet and applauded.
"We stand here together as a team,” Crook declared after signing the project partnership agreement.
He also took time to recognize the efforts of many local, state and federal officials in the crowd who had worked for years on the project, which began in 2009 following Fargo-Moorhead’s largest flood fight.
"The PPA will mark the formal beginning of having all partners on board and committed to the work that lies before us to ultimately complete a project which will ensure that future flood events are truly non-events," said Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the local Diversion Authority.
A man who rarely shows emotion, Vanyo joked that he had to write “smile” on his speech to remind himself. “This is a happy day,” he assured the laughing crowd.
Until Monday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had only been formally committed to studying the project. It’s now committed to building a part of the $2.1 billion project and contributing $450 million in federal funds.
Federal funding also unlocks funding from the state of North Dakota, which has pledged $570 million. Had the agreement not been signed this fiscal year, officials said, it could have faced significant delays.
While diversion supporters celebrated Monday, opponents said they still hoped the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would stop or reroute the project to reduce impact on upstream landowners and residents. Indeed, the Minnesota DNR recently sent a letter reminding the corps it has not completed its regulatory review.
The diversion project will be one of only six new projects started this fiscal year by the corps, which has an extensive backlog of projects it must still complete.
For many years, there had been a congressional moratorium on any new projects and, last year, the corps was only allowed four new starts, according to Judy DesHarnais, a top official with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ St. Paul District. How many new starts would be available next year is anyone’s guess.
“It’s really important because we’d have to go back and reauthorize and re-appropriate if we didn’t get this signed and started this year,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., a member of the committee that funds the corps.
The Obama administration agreed to support the project in 2012 and Congress authorized the project in 2014, finally agreeing to appropriate money earlier this year.
For the corps, it’s not just a matter of signing a piece of paper. The agency had to determine if anything threatened the completion of the project and how serious that risk is.
Earlier this year, a federal judge had dismissed complaints against the corps by the opposition group, the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority. Two weeks ago, the Minnesota DNR signed off on an environmental review of the project.
On July 5, the corps determined that it is “likely to resolve any outstanding regulatory issues that could affect the prospects of completing construction of the project.”
More work ahead
Diversion opponents still believe the risk of stopping construction on the diversion is significant.
“The Diversion Authority still has yet to receive a permit for this project from the state of Minnesota,” said Nathan Berseth, a Richland County commissioner and spokesman for the opposition group. “So they're no further ahead today than they were two weeks ago.”
The permit Berseth mentions is for a dam needed to reduce the impact on downstream communities. It’s the only part of the project that extends into Minnesota, but DNR officials have said any construction on the North Dakota side that precedes the permit is at the builder’s own risk.
On Friday, July 8, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr sent a letter to the corps reminding the federal agency about the permitting issue. “Given that your office did not directly consult with Minnesota prior to your making this determination, I want to ensure you are aware of Minnesota’s perspective regarding unresolved regulatory issues relevant to this project.”
The state is concerned about plans to reduce impact on upstream residents and landowners, and whether the project is a “reasonable approach to flood risk reduction,” he said, among other reasons.
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a supporter of the project who grew up in Richland County, said she also wants to see just compensation. “Moving water from one place to the other creates longterm possibilities for bad relationships with neighbors,” she said Monday. “We still have neighbors that I know of that don't talk to each other. So that is a consequence that must be avoided.”
Vanyo said providing fair compensation is a top priority for the Diversion Authority and it is working on a plan to submit to the DNR.
DesHarnais said the corps applied for a permit from the DNR in February and plans to talk about it with officials there this week. She said that while the agreement had to be signed before the fiscal year is over – Congress’ deadline is Aug. 31 – construction could start in the next year, so it’s no concern that the DNR may take a few months to reach a decision.
But even with the project deep in the bureaucratic weeds, speakers at the agreement signing ceremony Monday sought to remind everyone why they were there.
“The largest city in North Dakota and our neighbor to the east, Moorhead, are deserving of having flood protection in a manner that is similar to Grand Forks, Wahpeton, West Fargo, Roseau and many other cities on or near the Red River,” said Vanyo.
Hoeven, who was North Dakota governor during the 2009 flood in Fargo-Moorhead, remembered touring Fargo during that and several other floods. “Who wants to relive that? Just think about it. If we had another winter, a lot of snow, one next spring, all of a sudden we're putting up sandbags again. No way, right? We've had enough of that.”
On the Web: To see a copy of the project partnership agreement and the DNR letter, go to Inforum.com.
A condensed timeline
2008: Fargo and Moorhead agree to share cost of metro-wide flood protection project with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
2009: The Fargo-Moorhead area fights its biggest flood to date, giving the project greater urgency; today, that flood is considered just a 50-year event. Fargo voters approve ½-cent sales tax for flood control.
2010: Local officials push a diversion in North Dakota instead of cheaper options in Minnesota because it would give Fargo-Moorhead a fighting chance against a 500-year flood. The corps later determined a diversion of any kind would send too much floodwater downstream, sparking opposition from northern communities. The corps and local officials plan an upstream dam to reduce flow, sparking opposition from southern communities. Cass County voters approve a ½-cent sales tax to pay for flood control.
2011: The Diversion Authority was formed.
2012: The Obama administration offered formal support for the project. Upstream diversion opponents formed the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority. Fargo voters approve a ½-cent sales tax for the diversion.
2013: The RWJPA filed suit to stop the diversion and require the project to get clearance from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
2014: Congress authorized the project.
2015: The judge ordered work on the Oxbow ring dike, a part of the project, to stop until the DNR environmental review is done. Local governments voted to allow special assessments to pay for the diversion to get better interest rates despite opposition by many property owners.
2016: The judge dismissed the corps from the lawsuit. The DNR completed its review but a permit for the dam is still needed. Congress appropriated funds for the project and the corps signed an agreement to begin work on the project in the fall.