FARGO — The onset of winter and the dormancy it brings can make it seem like work on the $2.75 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project has gone into hibernation.

But lots of quiet work is being done to prepare for construction of two major features for the project — an inlet to carry floodwaters from the Red River into the 30-mile diversion channel that will bypass Fargo-Moorhead, and a structure to control flows from the tributary Wild Rice River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers just awarded a $59.4 million contract to build the Wild Rice control structure, located 7 miles south of Fargo. Work will begin when weather and soil conditions permit next spring or summer.

Also next spring or summer, work will resume on the $46 million Red River inlet, located a mile south of Horace, N.D. Work on that structure started in 2017 but was halted that year because of a federal court challenge.

Ground preparation work as seen earlier this year for an inlet a mile south of Horace, N.D., that will divert water from a flooding Red River into the diversion channel. Special to The Forum
Ground preparation work as seen earlier this year for an inlet a mile south of Horace, N.D., that will divert water from a flooding Red River into the diversion channel. Special to The Forum

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In April, a federal judge allowed certain construction work to progress in North Dakota, even while legal challenges involving a keystone permit for the project by Minnesota officials continue.

“The need for the project is great,” said Terry Williams, the Corps of Engineers’ project manager for the diversion. “We’re vigorously pursuing the work that’s allowed by the court so we can progress this project.”

The work on the two structures that will start or resume next construction season will largely involve testing and preparations, such as pile-driving, for concrete work that will begin in 2021, Williams said.

“There’s so much below ground that has to happen before you can start the structures themselves,” she said.

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Meanwhile, Corps engineers are designing other key features for the project, including a 21-mile embankment to temporarily hold back water to allow for a controlled release of floodwater into the diversion channel as well as a Red River control structure.

To manage the accelerating activity, the Diversion Authority is preparing to fill key staff positions.

Joel Paulsen, the Diversion Authority’s executive director, has presented a proposal seeking approval to hire an assistant executive director, engineers, a financial director, a communications director and an administrative assistant.

His budget request for the 2020 fiscal year includes total administrative costs of $905,000, including salaries, wages and benefits for the staff members as well as $105,000 for operating costs.

Seven of the proposed eight positions will result in a net cost savings because they will take over duties now being performed by consultants, Paulsen said.

By the end of January, he hopes to have an administrative assistant and assistant executive director on board, with the other positions to be filled later in 2020.

“Things are moving forward,” Paulsen said.

Besides construction and design work for the features being built by the Corps of Engineers, the Diversion Authority is proceeding with preparations for selecting a developer to design and build the 30-mile diversion channel.

Diversion officials plan to invite bids next fall and to select the developer in the spring of 2021. The developer will be a consortium bringing together major engineering, construction and financial firms.

The novel arrangement is called a public-private partnership, which officials said will help accelerate the construction of the project and reduce costs. Because the developer will share financial risk for the project, and assume responsibility to operate and maintain the diversion for 30 years, the result will benefit taxpayers, Paulsen said.

“They’re going to provide a quality project because they’re going to be responsible for that facility for 30 years,” he said.

Ground preparation work as seen earlier this year for the inlet a mile south of Horace, N.D., that will divert water from a flooding Red River into the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion channel. Special to The Forum
Ground preparation work as seen earlier this year for the inlet a mile south of Horace, N.D., that will divert water from a flooding Red River into the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion channel. Special to The Forum