FARGO — The federal government has committed another $300 million toward the $2.75 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood protection project, raising the federal share of support for the diversion to $750 million.
The announcement of the commitment from the Army Corps of Engineers was made Tuesday, March 5, by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. The Corps' assistant secretary for civil works, R.D. James, approved the renegotiation of what's called the project partnership agreement for comprehensive flood protection in the Red River Valley.
"We've been working very hard on this, and it's a big step forward," Hoeven said in a statement. "What this means now is instead of funding $450 million for permanent flood protection the Corps of Engineers will now fund $750 million for permanent flood protection in the Red River Valley."
The increased federal support will help to secure future federal money in Army Corps work plans, adding to the $100 million in construction funding Hoeven has helped secure for the project to date, and provide certainty to the North Dakota Legislature as members consider funding for the project.
Local legislators have said lawmakers have balked at increasing state support for the project without an increased commitment of federal support for the diversion.
The increased federal commitment comes after the Metro Diversion Authority — in light of significant design changes needed to secure Minnesota regulators' approval, and cost escalation — asked the state of North Dakota and federal government each to increase their financial support for the flood project.
So far, in a bill to fund water projects, the North Dakota Legislature has allocated another $133 million for the diversion. If approved, that money would be in addition to the $570 million already committed by the state, but short of another $300 million. Sales taxes in the city of Fargo and Cass County will contribute $1 billion.
"This marks a huge step forward in securing comprehensive flood protection for a vital economic engine for the entire state of North Dakota and western Minnesota," North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said. "Additional federal funding and a renegotiated partnership are essential elements of this project, and today's announcement should instill confidence as we work with the North Dakota Legislature to secure additional state funding for the project."
Burgum, in supporting increased funding for the project, has noted that the diversion would protect a fifth of North Dakota's population and $20 billion in property. If the state were to provide $870 million for the project, it would be financing 32 percent of the cost. Cass County accounted for 16 percent, or $2.8 billion, in state taxable sales in 2017.
Typically, Burgum has said, the state picks up a much larger share of major water projects. As examples, the State Water Commission has contributed $113 million, or 79 percent, of flood protection for Valley City; $18 million, or 79 percent of flood protection for Lisbon; $32 million, or 68 percent of the total for Grafton; and $480 million, or 65 percent of major flood protection for Minot.
Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner and chairwoman of the Diversion Authority board, thanked Hoeven and the rest of the North Dakota congressional delegation for their "tireless work to ensure that flood protection for our region remains a top priority in Washington."
The increased federal support should be welcome news in Bismarck, Scherling said.
"Our legislative leaders in Bismarck have told us that before they commit additional state funding that the federal government needs to be there too," she said in a statement. "The news of an additional $300 million from the federal government is well-timed for us to work with our legislators in Bismarck on a balanced funding approach for this critical project."
In another favorable development, the Corps of Engineers issued a finding of "no significant impact" for an environmental assessment of the revised project, which reviewed changes to the project stemming from task force recommendations to make it more acceptable to Minnesota.
The Corps determined that the revised diversion would have similar effects on water quantity as well as threatened and endangered species, but would reduce adverse effects involving relocation of businesses and homes in upstream areas. The revised project, often called Plan B, also would reduce adverse effects to fish passage on the Red River, aquatic habitat and wetlands.
The project has received a major permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, with 54 conditions attached. The permit is being contested by the Minnesota towns of Wolverton and Comstock as well as Minnesota's Buffalo-Red River Watershed District. The Diversion Authority also is seeking to lift a court order halting construction on the project.
In spite of the challenges, diversion officials hope to resume construction on the project this spring.