FARGO — Engineers predict the metro flood protection diversion project will operate on average once every 20 years during extreme floods.

But a system of recreation trails and parkways along the 30-mile diversion channel that will skirt the Fargo-Moorhead area’s western edge would allow continuous public use of the $3.2 billion project, advocates say.

The Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Council of Governments (MetroCOG) has put forth a vision for a 30-mile recreation trail system interspersed with cultural and recreational nodes, such as campgrounds, picnic spots and ball diamonds, that could provide recreational amenities.

A $1.14 billion bid that has been awarded to an international consortium of companies to build the mammoth diversion channel includes funds for a rudimentary trail segment and access points.

But developing a robust greenway system will take years of planning and will require significant funding, said Joel Paulsen, executive director of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority.

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“None of that ever was contemplated to be part of the diversion project,” he said. Still, officials do envision some basic bike trails running along the diversion with a few parking lots and access points.

“It isn’t anything nearly as robust as what MetroCOG put together,” Paulsen said.

Diversion Authority plans call for two trailheads with 50 parking spaces, picnic tables, trash cans and vault toilets housed in permanent structures running parallel to the diversion channel.

On both the left and right channel berms, there will be a continuous maintenance road and trail that is gravel. Along the right embankment, there also will be a graded secondary trail.

The plan is to have the trail be a pedestrian-accessible and bike-friendly part of the project.

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There also will be pedestrian access to aqueducts spanning the channel. Bike lanes will connect the left berm and right berm at 10 locations. Also, nine of the bridges in the total project are designated to have expanded bike lanes.

The major trailheads will be at County Road 81 on the north end of the channel and at 52nd Avenue West near West Fargo. The trails will run the entire length of the channel, from the diversion inlet structure to the outlet.

Discussions between the Diversion Authority and city park officials in Fargo, West Fargo and Horace as well as the North Dakota Department of Parks and Recreation are in the early stages, Paulsen said.

“Right now we’ve been having some very high-level discussions with the state and MetroCOG,” Paulsen said. The project needs a forceful champion to bring people together and drive the effort.

“You need to have some sort of a government entity that goes after funding,” he said.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney strongly supports a greenway project along the diversion path, which he said would provide a recreational amenity that will help the metro area attract visitors and residents.

“We think it would help make Fargo an attractive place to live and work,” he said. “Just think of the ability to get on a bike and ride 30 miles unimpeded by traffic.”

Mahoney hopes federal money could help support the project. “There’s a variety of things we can do if we get federal money,” the mayor said.

MetroCOG last year cited a “very preliminary” $53 million construction estimate for 11 recreational sites along the 30-mile diversion channel. It pegged the costs of building trails at $320,000 in the short term and $15.3 million over the long term, mostly for paving.

Local officials hope the North Dakota Parks and Recreation Department will become a greenway park partner. One challenge for the state park system is the maintenance obligations they have for existing parks, Mahoney said.

This sketch shows a proposed greenway that would follow the 30-mile flood diversion channel as it skirts the Fargo-Moorhead area, potentially enabling year-round outdoor recreation activities, including cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowmobiling in winter.
This sketch shows a proposed greenway that would follow the 30-mile flood diversion channel as it skirts the Fargo-Moorhead area, potentially enabling year-round outdoor recreation activities, including cross-country skiing, ice skating and snowmobiling in winter.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, has been pushing for a greenway to accompany the diversion.

“We have many people in Fargo-Moorhead who aren’t able to get out to these wonderful state parks that we have,” he said.

Fargo and West Fargo provide a huge economic engine for the state, and the state should provide outdoor recreational amenities for residents of the state’s most populous metropolitan area, Mathern said.

“It’s the economy of Fargo-Moorhead that supports the entire state,” he said. “We have this rich opportunity now of this land that essentially would not have become available without this diversion.”

The diversion has come with negative consequences for property owners whose land is needed for the project, so it would be nice to see benefits from the project in addition to flood control that only will be needed occasionally, Mathern said.

“I think a state park offers that possibility,” he said.

West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis said a crucial factor will be the budget for operations and maintenance of the diversion. He said he's had a brief discussion with Gov. Doug Burgum about the possibility of a state park along the diversion.

"There's discussion about it at this point," he said. "It's in a very early stage, but there's a lot of interest."

North Dakotans make an estimated 160,000 trips to Minnesota for outdoor recreation, according to the MetroCOG study. If a greenway recreation area could capture 20%, it would generate $100 million over 20 years, the study projected.

Work on the channel will start next spring and is expected to be substantially complete by 2027.