HORACE — Dignitaries and men in hard hats and yellow vests mingled as the rumble of heavy equipment in the background signified progress on construction of the Wild Rice River control structure.
The $46 million concrete form visible from Interstate 29 is one of three gated control structures that will regulate the flow of floodwaters to protect the Fargo-Moorhead metro area during extreme floods.
The $3.2 billion diversion project is on track to provide flood protection in the spring of 2027. As crews race to complete the project, there’s a friendly rivalry: a steak dinner is riding on which team finishes first: the team led by the Army Corps of Engineers that is building the three control structures and a 20-mile embankment or the crew that will build the 30-mile diversion channel.
The bet was revealed by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., during a gathering Thursday, Aug. 12, as Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, chief of the Army Corps of Engineers, toured the flood-control project for an update on construction progress.
“There’s like a steak dinner bet between the two teams,” Hoeven said. “We’ve got a heck of a horse race going.”
Of course, as Hoeven and others made clear, much more is at stake than who pays for a steak dinner: The diversion project will protect a metro area with a population of 235,000 and billions of dollars of property.
“At the end of the day, this is about protecting lives and protecting property,” he said.
Moorhead Mayor Shelly Carlson, who is chairwoman of the Metro Flood Diversion Authority, said the diversion will put an end to the massive disruptions a major flood fight can entail. On a personal level, she noted, her son’s 10th birthday was observed during a momentary break in sandbagging during the record 2009 flood, which gave impetus to the diversion.
“This is to prevent that in the future,” Carlson said.
The project is being expedited in several ways, including the use of a public-private partnership, the first for a project involving the Corps and the first to take advantage of a low-interest federal lending program that will save almost $500 million over the life of the loan, according to Hoeven.
“This really is unique,” Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said, referring to the use of a public-private partnership and the loan program. “Nobody’s tried to do this.”
In early October, the Metro Flood Diversion Authority expects to sign the contract with the private consortium of companies that will design and build the diversion channel, which will start construction early next year.
The Corps’ part of the project is running on time, within budget and with a perfect safety record, said Spellmon, who was making his third visit to review diversion progress. “We call that winning in the Corps,” he said.
In an interview, Mahoney recalled the origin of the steak dinner bet. Back in 2015 and 2016, the Corps initially estimated it would take 18 years to complete the diversion project — a period Mahoney and other local officials considered unacceptably long.
“Why can’t we do it faster?” Mahoney said, recalling his response. Mahoney bet Spellmon’s predecessor that the private consortium could build the 30-mile diversion faster than the Corps could build its part of the project, the control structures and embankment.
On his next visit, the Corps commander said it could build its part of the project in six years, a third of the original time estimate, Mahoney said.
By dividing the project into two parts, officials concluded they could save both time and money. The diversion channel and associated aqueducts and bridges at first were divided among 13 projects which now are consolidated into a single, $1.14 billion contract with the consortium, the Red River Valley Alliance.
Combining all of those elements provides more opportunities to find efficiencies and savings, said Cass County Engineer Jason Benson.
Compared to traditional construction arrangements, use of the public-private partnership will save the project $330 million and 10 years, Hoeven said. The diversion will be a “proof of concept” to demonstrate how the public-private model can save time and money on major infrastructure projects, he said.
The road has been bumpy in getting the diversion to this stage. Legal challenges caused delays and forced a redesign of the project. A settlement reached last fall removed any legal roadblocks, allowing the project to move ahead.
“It’s really about people coming together with this vision,” said Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Minn., who recalled first dealing with Red River Valley floods as a state legislator.
Ironically, Thursday’s celebratory gathering took place in the midst of a drought, which actually helped the builders.
“We’ve had almost ideal construction weather,” Mahoney said.
Wild Rice River control structure
264,000 cubic yards of excavated dirt
20,000 cubic yards of rip-rap
27,500 square feet of sheet pile
1,000 tons of rebar
11,700 cubic yards of concrete