RURAL HORACE, N.D. - As Patrick Loree, pastor of Horace Lutheran Church, delivered a prayer for the flood diversion that dignitaries would soon break ground on in an empty field here, protesters could be heard yelling from across Cass County Road 17.
"When I was asked to offer the invocation for today's activities, I found myself torn with mixed emotions," he told the crowd Monday, April 17. "My congregation has a great number of people who are very much for and very much against this project. And I love them all."
Loree called for God's blessing on those who will sacrifice their property for the dam being built here, on those building that dam and on those who would benefit from it. He said his parents lost their Minot home to flooding in 2011, so he knows the need for flood protection.
"Where's your permit?" a protester cried, referring to the dam permit Minnesota regulators denied the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority and the subject of a federal lawsuit that could stop the region's most expensive project in its tracks.
The $2.2 billion diversion includes a 30-mile man-made river channel around Fargo-Moorhead, protecting thousands of homes, and a dam to control the flow of flood water, reducing the impact on downstream communities.
Winners and losers
The groundbreaking Monday was for an inlet structure south of Fargo-Moorhead that would release dammed water into the channel.
Unlike many groundbreaking ceremonies, it lacked a triumphant tone.
In part it's because the event also commemorated the devastating Red River flood of 20 years ago that, together with the 2009 flood, was an impetus for the project. And in part it's because even project supporters recognize that while many would win, some would lose.
"We can't always make sure it's exactly the way everybody wants, right?" Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said in his speech. "You can't get 100 percent agreement. But we can get a lot of agreement. And for those folks who are impacted, we can work hard to make sure they're treated fairly and well."
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., too, made the same vow. "We are going to do everything that we can to make sure that not only do we get this project done for the future of the region, but that we get this project done in a way that's fair to all of our neighbors."
Protesters speak out
The presence of about a dozen protesters was a reminder that not everybody feels they're being treated fairly now. Both senators went to meet with them before the groundbreaking.
Most of the protesters live or farm upstream of the dam, which could temporarily flood 32,500 acres during flood season. The Diversion Authority, which is already building a ring dike around the Oxbow-Hickson-Bakke area, has plans to buy out homes that could be flooded and compensate farmers if high water prevents them from planting.
Don Cossette, who owns the farmland across County Road 17 but lives upstream in the Bakke subdivision, said the Diversion Authority isn't offering him as much as was offered in Oxbow, an upscale community to the south.
"All I'm asking for is be fair with me," he told Heitkamp, who said she would look into it.
Shelley Lewis, who lives in rural Comstock, Minn., at the edge of the potentially flooded area, said she would have to build her own flood protection. Pointing to a sign she held that said "Where's your permit?", she asked Hoeven if he could answer the question.
"I understand that's something we're working on," the senator said. "And I want you to know we're working on making sure we're addressing upstream concerns."
Authority Chairman and Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said North Dakota regulators have issued a permit and construction is taking place on the North Dakota side of the Red River. Construction won't start on the Minnesota side for three years, he said, time enough for the authority to work out differences with that state.
Minnesota regulators have joined the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, opponents of the project in a lawsuit against the Diversion Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They've asked the judge to halt work until the suit is resolved but he has not yet ruled on that.
The crowd at the ceremony, which outnumbered protesters 4:1, included many elected officials who support the flood diversion. They reminded one another that despite opposition to the project, the threat of flooding as happened in the Red River Valley in 1997 and 2009 and in Minot in 2011 leave them few choices.
"When Grand Forks went down, it took them 10 to 15 years to rebuild," Mahoney said of the devastation the 1997 flood wrought on the smaller downstream city. Fargo-Moorhead is a big city with a lot of lives and jobs on the line, he said, and it must be protected.
Hoeven recalled the day Grand Forks fought high water and downtown fires. "Do you remember that? Do you remember pictures of the planes flying over downtown Grand Forks, dropping fire retardant at the same time the community was flooding?"
Heitkamp said she was in her sister's Grand Forks home when the nearby dike broke and the family had to evacuate. It was hard to watch the family and community struggle to rebuild, she said.
Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, whose best friend lost a business in the Grand Forks flood, said she recently talked to a resident whose home will be among the 800 in the 100-year flood plain.
Moorhead is on higher ground than Fargo, she said, but it, too, is at risk. Defying her state's stance on the project, she said, "It is not just a Fargo project. It's a Moorhead project, too. And, of course, anything that happens to Fargo in some huge way impacts Moorhead because we're very intertwined as a community."