FARGO-Supporters of a water supply project for eastern-and now central-North Dakota hope to start construction on the $1 billion project in the next two years.
What's still called the Red River Valley Water Supply has evolved into a proposal that could serve 35 municipal and rural water systems in central and eastern North Dakota during periods of prolonged drought.
"It's about 50 percent of the population of North Dakota," said Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is overseeing the project, referring to the cities and rural water systems that could benefit.
The project would divert water from the Missouri River and carry it by pipeline to the Sheyenne River and ultimately the Red River, and points in between, including the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks.
Other North Dakota cities looking to the project to supplement their water supplies include Jamestown, Valley City, Carrington, Devils Lake, Hillsboro, Mayville and Wahpeton.
The coming legislative session, which convenes Jan. 3, could be important in determining whether the long-sought project moves ahead-and, if so, how aggressive the construction time table could be, DeKrey said.
"I think we're kind of at the point now that the state of North Dakota has to say this is important and make it a priority or go the other way," he said.
Going the other way, DeKrey added, would mean leaving cities vulnerable during extended droughts, which he does not view as a viable option.
In his budget recommendations released earlier this month, former Gov. Jack Dalrymple proposed $15 million for the project during the 2017-19 budget. Gov. Doug Burgum has expressed support for the water project, but is still working on a recommended funding level.
A permit application will be filed soon with the North Dakota Department of Health for an outlet to the Sheyenne, either directly or via Baldhill Creek, DeKrey said.
Engineering work also is continuing on water intakes along the Missouri River near Washburn, N.D., and identifying stretches along the pipeline route that might have to bore beneath a wetland, railroad or road crossing, DeKrey said.
Officials plan to file permit applications for the intake structures during 2017.
More work also is required along the pipeline route, which generally would follow the Highway 200 corridor across the state, including environmental and cultural resource studies.
Project proponents are pushing to start construction in the next two years because they presume a Trump administration, and a Republican-controlled Congress, will be more likely to grant federal permits for water development projects, DeKrey said.
"We all know the pendulum swings," he said, adding that the Obama administration's proposed Waters of the United States regulations, the subject of a legal challenge by states including North Dakota, could have killed the pipeline project. Under a Trump administration, the presumption is the rule will be scrapped, DeKrey said.
Also, he said, "A huge reason is cost of construction and inflation." Borrowing costs remain low, and could make the difference between a 10-year financing period or a 20-year payback, an "astronomical" difference in financing costs.
"You need to build this as quick as possible," DeKrey said.
Burgum said the change in administrations in Washington could present opportunities, but said cost efficiency will be important.
"North Dakota needs the capability to transfer Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota," the governor said in a statement. "In light of the budget pressures we face at the state level and the new administration in Washington, D.C., that may open up previously closed avenues, we need to put everything on the table as we pursue this long-term objective in the most cost-efficient way possible."
The Bureau of Reclamation is performing an environmental assessment to see if the water supply project could use a stretch of the McClusky Canal, which uses water pumped from Lake Audubon on the Missouri to the east.
McClusky Canal was part of the now-defunct Garrison Diversion Project, designed to carry water for irrigation. The water supply pipeline route would pass within about six miles of the canal, and water officials are exploring a spur pipeline to connect the canal and main pipeline.
If it passes the environmental assessment, Missouri River water from McClusky Canal could be used by the water supply project-as long as it stays within the Missouri River watershed, DeKrey said. That could be done using pipeline control valves, he said.