Minnesota grants permit for Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, clearing major regulatory hurdle

The flood diversion got its most significant permit for the project, to enable construction of a dam to regulate flows into the diversion channel, but still must clear further permits and meet more than 50 conditions — a process Minnesota regulators expect will take a decade while construction is underway. The project also requires $600 million in additional funding.

This is a rendering of the inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream from the dam. / Image credit: Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority.
This is a rendering of the inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream from the dam that would be part of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project. Special to The Forum
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FARGO — The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources granted a permit for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion in a move that gives the $2.75 billion project a major regulatory clearance.

The decision, announced on Thursday, Dec. 27, was the culmination of years of planning and preparation. The diversion plan that won approval reflects significant revisions to the original plan in order to satisfy Minnesota officials, whose approval for a dam to regulate flows into the diversion channel was needed.

The permit, for a revised diversion proposal called Plan B, includes more than 50 special conditions governing project design, construction, operation and maintenance, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

"Plan B, with the conditions included in DNR's permit, represents a balanced approach to reducing the flood risk in an important metropolitan area while protecting public safety and the environment," Tom Landwehr, Minnesota DNR commissioner, said in a statement announcing the permit.

Local officials applauded the permit decision, but also noted that a lot of work remains to be done to complete the project.


"This is a major milestone for the project, but we still have a long way before we cross the finish line," Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner and board member for the Diversion Authority, said in a statement. "This project is critically important for our citizens, economy and the future of the Red River Valley."

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the permit decision moves the diversion another step closer to implementation.

"We look forward to working with our federal and state partners to the remaining funding commitments needed for the project," he said in a statement. "Today was a momentous occasion."

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams thanked officials in Minnesota and North Dakota for their work on the project.

"We know our work has really only just begun," Williams said in a statement. "It is up to the Diversion Authority to now review the permit conditions and begin the next steps to implement the project, which includes working with the DNR and the upstream entities to resolve the ongoing litigation."

Construction this spring

Plan B, the revised diversion proposal, altered the levees that contain a temporary water impoundment area upstream of the dam south of Fargo-Moorhead, so more of the water will be pooled in North Dakota, which will receive most of the flood protection benefits, minimizing impacts in Minnesota.

The new plan means construction can resume on the diversion this spring. Construction on the inlet structure near Horace was suspended because of a lawsuit. A task force led by Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum drafted recommendations that helped guide the revised project to meet Minnesota's concerns.

Prompted by the record 2009 Red River flood, which threatened to devastate large areas of Fargo especially, the diversion project has been authorized by Congress and ranks high on the Army Corps of Engineers' priority list.


Without diversion protection, about 169,000 acres in Fargo-Moorhead is subject to flooding in a 100-year flood, Landwehr said. "Plan B will provide 100-year protection for about 57,000 of those acres, while exposing approximately 12,000 acres to new flooding potential. Most of the acreage newly subject to flooding will be south of Fargo-Moorhead."

Local governments are expanding their home-buyout programs to remove properties that are vulnerable to flooding from the revised diversion.

Under the revised plan, an additional 12,000 acres upstream of the diversion dam, including about 3,700 acres in Minnesota, will be inundated when the diversion operates during an extreme flood.

The permit issued Thursday governs dam safety and public works associated with the project, and is the major permit needed for the project. But additional DNR permits and approvals also are required. A federal court injunction on the project also must be addressed.


Conditions attached to the permit granted Thursday include required mitigation measures, including acquisition of property rights for all impacted property in Minnesota, and fish passage at Drayton Dam . The dam will be replaced with rock rapids that will enable fish to move downstream. That will mitigate difficulties the diversion will impose on fish swimming in the Red River.

Oxbows also will be restored on the Lower Otter Tail River, which will increase acres of public waters in Minnesota to compensate for acres of public waters that will be removed from the diversion project, a condition required for the project to meet Minnesota law.

Minnesota regulators will review and approve all final engineering plans before each construction phase, a process the DNR expects will take more than 10 years. The DNR also will review operating and maintenance plans for the diversion and will coordinate with the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District on a Wolverton Creek crossing structure.


Challenges remain

The diversion project still faces significant obstacles, even though it appears to have cleared its final major regulatory hurdle. Escalating costs, from inflation and the design changes, mean the Diversion Authority is asking the state of North Dakota and federal government each to contribute another $300 million for the project.

Cass County and Fargo will contribute more than $1 billion for the project with money raised from sales taxes approved by voters. North Dakota has committed to pay $570 million, and the federal government has committed to pay $450 million. Minnesota will be asked to pay $86 million, half for the project and half for in-town protections in Moorhead.

Besides the financial challenges, officials believe another lawsuit is likely from Minnesota's Wilkin County and North Dakota's Richland County, both located upstream, where opposition to the project is notable.

The revised design calls for flows on the Red River to reach a level of 37 feet through Fargo-Moorhead, where major flood stage begins at 30 feet. The 2009 flood reached 40.8 feet.

Once the diversion is operating, half of the Red River's flows will be diverted during extreme floods to run through the diversion channel, which will bypass Fargo and West Fargo, and return to the river via an outlet downstream of Georgetown, Minn., north of Fargo-Moorhead.

Local officials hope to complete construction within 6 1/2 years, since the longer the project takes to build, the higher the cost could climb due to inflation. In 2015, before the design changes, the cost estimate for the diversion was $2.2 billion.

Landwehr said the extensive discussions and revisions that were made to enable Minnesota to grant the permit stemmed from "an exercise in modification. Compromise might be a word, negotiations might be a better word."

Granting the permit does not automatically end Minnesota's participation, along with the upstream opponents, in the federal lawsuit, Landwehr said. That lawsuit still must be resolved, he said.

More information about the diversion can be found online at the Diversion Authority website.

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