FARGO — Duane DeKrey has sometimes encountered blank stares when he’s been advocating for the $1.22 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project to supplement water supplies during extended droughts.

For most of the past two decades, the Red River Valley has been dealing with too much water, including the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks-East Grand Forks and the 2009 record flood that threatened Fargo-Moorhead.

“Since 1993 up until this year we’ve kind of been trying to sell ice cubes to eskimos,” said DeKrey, who is general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is managing the project. “But people are taking notice.”

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The Red River Valley and all of North Dakota are in the midst of a prolonged drought, and the Red River in Fargo is flowing far below normal, underscoring the metro area’s vulnerability to extended dry periods.

The project, which evolved out of the federal Garrison Diversion irrigation project dating back to the 1960s, now is a state project that will use a large pipeline to carry water from the Missouri River to central and eastern North Dakota.

After years of sluggish progress, the project got a boost from a $50 million appropriation from the North Dakota Legislature for work during the 2021-23 budget.

The water supply project is moving ahead with construction in three locations this summer as drought grips the region.

Work that began last year on an inlet along the Missouri River near Washburn north of Bismarck continues. A shaft is being built near the river that will be used in pumping water.

Workers prepare to begin tunneling under U.S. Highway 52/281 south of Carrington, N.D., for the first segment of pipeline for the $1.2 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project. Special to The Forum
Workers prepare to begin tunneling under U.S. Highway 52/281 south of Carrington, N.D., for the first segment of pipeline for the $1.2 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project. Special to The Forum

Meanwhile, about a mile south of Carrington, workers are preparing to install 1.2 miles of pipeline along a stretch that includes varied conditions that will help contractors in building the rest of the 165-mile pipeline.

Finally, work on the pipeline outlet is underway near Cooperstown, where water will be discharged into the Sheyenne River, which flows into the Red River at Harwood.

A crew from Industrial Builders pours concrete in a drilled shaft for the foundation of the discharge structure into the Sheyenne River near Cooperstown, N.D. The discharge structure is part of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project. Special to The Forum
A crew from Industrial Builders pours concrete in a drilled shaft for the foundation of the discharge structure into the Sheyenne River near Cooperstown, N.D. The discharge structure is part of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project. Special to The Forum

The pipeline, 72 inches in diameter, will be capable of carrying 165 cubic feet of water per second during peak demand.

“The pipe is being manufactured right now down in Texas,” DeKrey said. The pace of the work will depend upon funding from the state, he said.

Water carried by the pipeline will be enough to augment the residential and industrial water supply needs of cities including Fargo, West Fargo and Grand Forks. The project will be capable of meeting the supplemental water needs of 50% of North Dakota’s population, serving central and eastern North Dakota.

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Legislative leaders have given assurances that the Red River Valley Water Supply Project will be a priority water project when the Legislature meets in 2023, DeKrey said.

The completion timeline for the project will depend upon the pace of funding. The project could be completed within five to six years, but that would result in higher pipe costs, because suppliers would strain to deliver on that schedule, he said.

The optimal construction period would be 10 years, according to a value engineering study, DeKrey said. He expects regular funding will keep the project on track.

“Every summer we’ll be putting more pipe in the ground as the Legislature appropriates more money,” he said. Funding comes with a 25% local match requirement. Thirty-five municipal and rural water services have signed up as customers for the project.

North Dakota officials have asked the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation for permission to use two features of the now-defunct federal Garrison Diversion project, the Snake Creek Pumping Station, which pumps Missouri River water, and the McClusky Canal.

Being able to use those features would save money on operating costs, because of reduced pumping costs. But the state of Missouri has filed a federal lawsuit to block access.

“We think we’re on firm ground,” DeKrey said. The appeal deadline for the primary avenue to challenge the project, the discharge permit granted by the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, has passed.

North Dakota officials are optimistic that they can defeat that legal challenge, but the project can proceed without use of the federal infrastructure, if necessary, now that the project no longer depends on federal support, DeKrey said.

“The state gave up working with the federal government,” he said.

On the other hand, if a federal infrastructure bill passes, the Red River Water Supply Project has plenty of “shovel ready” work lined up. “We’re ready for $200 million,” DeKrey said. “Hopefully we’ll receive some of it.”