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North Dakota must claim Missouri River water for project, or risk losing it, official says

Officials will push for a faster construction timeline for the $1.3 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which will provide supplemental water during periods of extended drought to cities including Fargo and Grand Forks.

Intake Site Aerial.jpg
An aerial view of the intake structure under construction near Washburn, North Dakota, that will pump Missouri River water through a pipeline to central and eastern North Dakota via the Red River Valley Water Supply Project.
Special to The Forum
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FARGO — An official warns that other states including areas afflicted by the western megadrought are interested in diverting Missouri River water and North Dakota risks losing its water permits if it’s too slow to secure its claims.

Duane DeKrey, manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is overseeing the $1.3 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project, said that risk as well as the cost of inflation are among reasons he will ask for speeding up construction of the project, which will carry Missouri River water to the Red River Valley.

Construction is progressing on the intake structure in Washburn for the 167-mile pipeline, and the discharge structure, which empties into the Sheyenne River south of Cooperstown, is complete.

But so far only 1.2 miles of pipeline, near Carrington, have been installed. Plans call for building 4.5 miles this year and another 4.5 next year, or a little more than 10 miles or 5.9% of the total distance, DeKrey said.

“It’s somewhere on a 20- to 30-year building schedule right now,” he said. The $1.3 billion estimate is in 2022 dollars, but that amount will escalate over time. The life expectancy of the pipe is 100 years, so a slow build out will shorten the useful lifespan of the project, DeKrey said.

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DeKrey will be asking legislators in 2023 to approve a six-year building schedule, a pace that would require state investments of $300 million to $400 million per two-year budget cycle.

“That’s a pretty heavy lift,” he said, conceding that it could require bonding or some other alternate funding mechanism to achieve.

“We’ve got some legislators who are really supportive of that and others not so much,” DeKrey said.

In a recent presentation to the North Dakota Legislature’s Water Topics Overview Committee, DeKrey said a six-year construction timeline, with completion in 2027, would result in a cost of $1.48 billion, assuming moderate inflation. But in a high-inflation environment, the cost would rise to $1.55 billion.

A slower, 10-year construction period, with completion in 2031, would result in higher costs, running from $1.56 billion assuming moderate inflation to $1.65 billion with high inflation.

Also, a lack of water supply is limiting industrial development, especially processing of agricultural commodities, in eastern and central North Dakota, which will be served by the pipeline project, DeKrey said.

Although a corn-milling plant in Grand Forks is fully permitted, it would approximately double the city’s water use. A soybean crushing plant planned in Casselton will reuse wastewater effluent from Fargo.

But Wahpeton lost out on a possible soybean crushing plant, and expansion of the Cargill corn processing plant near Wahpeton is precluded by water supply, DeKrey said. Although Missouri River water is plentiful, transportation costs of moving the commodities from the east would pose challenges and might be cost-prohibitive, he said.

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“We need an assured water supply,” DeKrey said. The project could serve about half of the state’s population, with most of the water going to the areas of West Fargo, Fargo and Grand Forks, and would provide supplemental drinking water during periods of extended drought similar to the 1930s.

“We just need to move forward with this project,” DeKrey said.

Meanwhile, other states are looking to the Missouri River to solve their own water supply problems, he said.

In northeastern South Dakota, a project to serve Aberdeen and nearby communities is considering a 104-mile pipeline that could deliver between 28 million gallons of water per day to 44 million gallons per day.

In western South Dakota, Rapid City and nearby communities are considering a 170-mile pipeline that could use up to 64.8 million gallons per day, DeKrey said.

Much larger projects to divert Missouri River water have been proposed elsewhere, including a project in Kansas that could draw 3,546 million gallons per day and another large potential project has been discussed in Colorado , he said.

“Everybody’s looking at the Missouri,” DeKrey said. Under western water law, North Dakota could lose its water permits if other states secure rights and use the water first, he said.

“Everybody in the West is looking for water and they’ve been looking at the Missouri,” DeKrey said. “North Dakota has to stake its claim to Missouri River water.”

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RRVWSP pipeline prep.jpg
Workers prepare to begin tunneling under U.S. Highway 52/281 south of Carrington, North Dakota, for the first segment of pipeline for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project.
Special to The Forum

Besides construction of a pipeline section near Carrington, work this year on the Red River Valley Water Supply Project also will include building a tunnel and installing filters for the intake structure in Washburn.

Not all landowners along the pipeline route, much of which will follow the North Dakota Highway 200 corridor, have granted easements for the project.

As of Thursday, 35 landowners had yet to sign, roughly 10% of the number required, DeKrey said. Many of the holdouts are farmers in Wells and Griggs counties.

If easements aren’t in hand by Friday, July 8, officials will file eminent domain lawsuits , which would allow a jury to decide how much the easements are worth, DeKrey said.

“We live in this community,” said DeKrey, adding that he farmed and ranched for 30 years. “We’re trying our best to be good neighbors.”

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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