Federal work on metro flood diversion project coming in $170 million under budget
If the Army Corps of Engineers used the traditional approach, the diversion project — on pace to protect against extreme floods beginning in the spring of 2027 — would take another 10 years to build.
HORACE — The Red River inlet will serve as the gate that will control the flow of floodwater held back by a long, earthen embankment and funnel the discharge into a 30-mile diversion channel that will bypass the west metro area.
Construction on the inlet started in December 2016, but work was halted by a federal court injunction because of a legal challenge that put the project on hold until work resumed in August 2019.
Despite the early setback, work on projects designed and overseen by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is running on schedule and under budget thanks to savings of $170 million realized by Ames Construction, which is building the three gated control structures, including control structures for the Wild Rice and Red Rivers.
Today, the concrete inlet that towers over the prairie is more than 93% finished, scheduled for completion in July, when it will be turned over to the Metro Flood Diversion Authority.
On the overcast morning of Tuesday, May 9, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney joined Corps of Engineers officials in touring the Red River inlet structure to check on the project’s progress.
Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, said the ability to pay the federal share upfront enabled Ames Construction to save the $170 million.
Typically, large federal public works projects are funded incrementally, creating uncertainty for the contractors, who compensate by adding contingency costs that can inflate a project's cost by up to 40%, Spellmon later explained to The Forum Editorial Board.
By paying upfront, “They can plan,” hiring workers and buying materials more efficiently, he said.
“Ultimately, the taxpayer benefits from it,” Hoeven added, with savings applied to other taxpayer-funded projects.
The federal portion of the $3 billion metro flood diversion project is $750 million.
The project, which uses a public-private partnership, is a model for the Corps of Engineers. The “split delivery” of the public-private partnership — with a consortium of companies in partnership with the Metro Flood Diversion Authority building the project’s diversion channel — has enabled the project to move much more quickly at a savings to taxpayers, Spellmon and Hoeven said.
If the Corps used the traditional approach, the diversion project — slated to be finished in time to protect against extreme floods beginning in the spring of 2027 — would take another 10 years of construction, Spellmon said.
Under the traditional approach, the benefit-cost ratio for the project was too low, placing it far down on the list, where it was unlikely to ever get built, Hoeven said.
“We had to come up with a different model,” and embraced the public-private partnership approach, the first for the Army Corps of Engineers, he said.
To showcase the advantages using the public-private approach, the Army Corps of Engineers is hosting a leadership conference in Moorhead, with almost 200 Corps leaders from district offices around the country and four foreign locations on hand for briefings and to tour project sites.
“This project is a proof-of-concept for the Corps, providing a nationwide model on how to build projects on a quicker timeline and at a lower cost,” said Hoeven, who worked to pass 16 acts of Congress to authorize and pay for the project.
The Wild Rice control structure, also near Horace west of Interstate 29, is 91% finished, scheduled for completion in December, while the Red River control structure, the largest and last to start construction, is 11% finished, with completion scheduled for March 2026.
The massive, $3.2 billion flood-control project, whose three gated control structures will be located within the 22-mile embankment, is expected to operate an average of once every 20 years during extreme floods.
The project’s gates will close when the Red River level rises to 37 feet or more in Fargo.
Now that the project is well along toward completion, Fargo is experiencing accelerated growth, Mahoney said. The city has grown 20% over the past decade, he noted, and businesses have been building because they feel assured that flood protection is coming.
“Now they know they’re flood-protected,” Mahoney said. “People know it’s coming.”
Col. Eric Swenson, commander of the Army Corp of Engineers’ St. Paul District, which is overseeing the project, predicted that Fargo-Moorhead’s population will swell in the years ahead.
By 2050, Swenson said, “The population’s going to double.”