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Red River Water Supply pipe project will sue if landowners don’t sign by July 8, 2022

The Red River Valley Water Supply Project will sue farmland owners for eminent domain if they don’t sign easements before July 8, 2022. Farmers say the project is paying one-tenth what others pay for far smaller oil, gas and water pipelines.

Four farmers stand in a tidy farm shop and apartment, with grim faces as they contemplate what they say is inadequate compensation for a large water pipeline project going through their community.
Farmers threatened with eminent domain suits if they don’t by July 8, 2022, sign easements for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project are (counter-clockwise from front) Fred Richter, 71, and his son, Sam, 25, who farm at Sykeston, North Dakota; Fred’s cousin, David Richter, a farmer and township officer; and Larry “Butch” Rexine, who farms with his son, Scott, at Bowdon, North Dakota. Photo taken May 23, 2022, at Sykeston, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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SYKESTON, N.D. — A group of farmers in central North Dakota say the government is grossly underpaying them for forcing easements for a pipeline project that would take Missouri River water to Fargo and other eastern North Dakota users.

They say the Red River Valley Water Supply Project is needed, but say the land easement compensation rate is one-tenth what gas or oil pipeline pay for easements on land they cross.

A map of central and eastern North Dakota, shows where the water intake for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project starts, at left. When 6-foot diameter pipeline is completed -- in 37 years at the current rate -- it would run 167 miles to a discharge water into the Sheyenne River at Cooperstown, N.D., and would supply up to 34,000 gallons of water to Fargo, Grand Forks and other towns.
The water intake for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project is at Washburn, North Dakota, at left. The first phase of construction started in 2021 in the middle at Carrington, North Dakota, and ends at the discharge at Cooperstown, North Dakota. A six-foot diameter steel pipe will be buried in a 13- to 20-foot deep ditch that runs 167 miles long. At the current pace of $25 million per year ($50 million per biennium), it'll take 37 years to complete.
Courtesy / Red River Valley Water Supply Project.

The water project is designed to move Missouri River from Washburn, North Dakota, to Cooperstown, North Dakota, and ultimately into Sheyenne River to feed eastern North Dakota. The pipeline project currently is slated to be 167 miles long. Cosponsors are the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District and the Lake Agassiz Water Authority.

Dirt work started in May 2021 and its first 50-foot-long pipe was buried in August 2021 near Carrington. Only 1.2 miles was installed in 2021. A discharge structure is “substantially complete” near Cooperstown. A Missouri River intake is substantially complete near Washburn, North Dakota.

Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Conservancy District Union, acknowledged he is seeking easement signatures to acquire easement rights for a 150-foot-wide swath.

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Fred Richter, a semi-retired farmer lives at Sykeston, N.D., and says the Red River Water Supply Project inadequately compensates farmland landowners for productivity damage and potential liability. Photo taken May 23, 2022, near Carrington, N.D.
Mikkel Pates

Attorney Derrick Braaten of Bismarck, North Dakota, represents about a dozen landowners — roughly 10% of the affected landowners. Braaten has negotiated some improved compensation levels. But the matter still could end up in court if each individual doesn’t sign the easements agreements.

The Project in early June gave landowners until July 8, 2022, to sign, or be sued for “eminent domain.”

State-only project

The Project is designed to avoid a water supply crisis such as happened in the 1930s drought. In 1934, there was zero flow in the Red River for nearly five consecutive months.

“During such a shortage, it would take 1,200 truckloads of water per day to supply Fargo’s basic indoor household water needs,” said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation summary.

A 150-foot wide easement over a pipeline installation, flanked by the skyline of  Carrington, N.D., stands with water after a difficult weather season.
The beginning point of the construction for the Red River Valley Water Supply project, looking northward to the town of Carrington, North Dakota, promises excellent reclamation and compensation for crop losses, but the excessive rains in 2022 have hampered these efforts. Photo taken May 23, 2022, near Carrington, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The Project will send up to 74,000 gallons a minute and deliver water into the Sheyenne River near Cooperstown, North Dakota. The Sheyenne is a major tributary in the north-flowing Red River near Harwood, North Dakota.

A study in 2004 indicated a 1930s-style drought could “realistically be repeated before 2050.” The project would supply water to 13 eastern counties of North Dakota to people and industries. DeKrey said 84% of its use would be for Fargo, rural Cass County, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, for MR&I (municipal, rural and industrial) consumption. The Red River Valley is 90% dependent on surface waters, including the Sheyenne and Red Rivers, and storage in Lake Ashtabula. The cumulative cost of a 1930s-type drought was estimated to be $20.4 billion over a 10-year period.

DeKrey said the future of “wet” agricultural processing in the region depends on completing the pipeline.

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2021’s rough start

The pipe will be buried so there are 8 feet of soil on top, so the trench will be at least 13 feet, but possibly 20 feet deep, DeKrey confirmed. No buildings or other structures, trees or power lines can be placed over the pipeline, but field drainage tile can, if it is “easily removed and replaced in case of a maintenance issue,” he said. The easements in the landowner group so far have not been changed to specify this.

A grim-faced farmer in Farm Credit Services ball cap, stands in front of a messy water pipeline installation site.
Fred Richter, a farmland owner from Sykeston, North Dakota, said Fargo needs water, yes, but the Red River Valley Water Supply Project should be paying more than $1,350 an acre for a total of $3.5 million –- .002% of the $1.2 billion project -- to pay for the land easements it requires. Photo taken May 23, 2022, near Carrington, North Dakota. He said burying a 6-foot diameter water pipe is paying one-tenth what oil, gas and water pipelines are paying for a 6-inch pipeline in the oil patch.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

One of the affected landowners is Fred Richter, 71, of nearby Sykeston, North Dakota. On May 23, 2022, Richter strolled along the project, just east of U.S. Highway 281, and shook his head. “This is a mining thing,” Richter said.

Richter and his friends realize Fargo needs water but wishes the pipeline wasn’t coming. They wish the pipeline could have gone down I-94, or that Fargo could have gotten its emergency water from northern Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes. They wonder whether the pipe shouldn’t be going through existing canals, for moving water.

They’re not going to litigate these theories, but have balked at the compensation levels.

The Project provides only $3.5 million — or .002% of $1.2 billion cost — for easements on their land. They wonder why oil companies pay ten times more for a lot less damage if a gas or oil line goes through.

A vehicle with a canoe approaches a huge canal near McClusky, N.D., that initially was intended for irrigation and water supply potential, but was repurposed for wildlife.
Landowners are concerned about their compensation for a water pipeline and supply project between Washburn, N.D., and Cooperstown, N.D., and the Red River Valley, but also their liability if it isn’t finished as planned, ala the McClusky Canal, which was deauthorized for water conveyance and converted to recreation. Photo taken May 23, 2022, near McClusky, N.D.
Mikkel Pates

DeKrey explained the Project is a “public utility” and and likened it to a rural water line.

“Nobody’s going to make any money on it,” he said. He said that if the project had to pay higher expenses, including easements, the “water would not be affordable at all,” and said it’s “barely affordable now, because of inflation.”

Time is of the essence, DeKrey said. The state-only project, once promised $200 million per biennium by the Legislature, has been funded at $50 million per biennium in the 2021 Legislature, and $30 million in the 2019 Legislature. At its current rate, the project is on a 36- to 37-year build, DeKrey said. He hopes the Legislature will come up with more funds to accelerate the project to a six- or a 10-year build, so that the pipe isn’t “40% wore out,” before the state can “stick its first gallon” into it.

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Roads, right-of-way

David Richter, 61, (cousin to Fred) also from Sykeston, is a farmer and longtime board member for Bilodeau Township, in Wells County. As a farmer, he resents that the project will be be going “right in front of my road, in front of my yard,” he said.

A bustling Carrington, N.D., thoroughfare is just a mile or so from the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which will involve nearly $1.3 billion in construction. It will take 37 years to complete at current funding levels.
The Red River Valley Water Supply Project in 2021 started laying pipe eastward from Carrington, North Dakota. At the current rate, the project could take until 2058 to complete, using up 37% of the $1.3 billion project’s useful life, before a gallon of water goes through it. Photo taken May 23, 2022.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

As a township officer, David is concerned about the estimate that it will take about 800 semi-loads of material per mile of construction project — sand, rock, pipe, etc.

“A lot of our roads are soft, the way it is,” he said, adding that the “contract guys” in one meeting said they strive to stay working through adverse weather and would even “pull our trucks with a Cat(erpillar) if we have to,” he said.

DeKrey countered that “haul routes” are designed to be as good or better” than what originally was there.

David said he’s been told township officers can close roads but wonders what would happen if contractors challenge the township over the definition of “bad roads.” Project officials said they could complain to the contractors, or even take complaints to the Garrison Diversion, David said.

“Being it’s a state project, maybe there should be a state fund set up for this,” David said. “So we go to it and say, ‘Listen, we need ‘X’ amount of dollars to fix these roads up, if (damage) happens.'” Garrison Diversion officials have advised they’ll handle complaints to the best of their ability.

“What that means, I don’t know,” David said.

‘Dirt settlements’

Larry “Butch” Rexine, who farms with his son, Scott, at Bowdon, North Dakota, and also lives at Minot, North Dakota. He thinks the land acquisition process has been shabby and disrespectful to “reasonable” farmers. He resents it has taken legal action to improve the terms.

“I honestly believe they thought we’re a bunch of darned, dumb-old farmers. We can shove this down their throat,” he said. “We don’t even need to include them in this project.”

One widow, in one of the meetings, said she’d signed the easement because the person promoting the easement told her she could lose her land.

David thinks the compensation rates are far from adequate: “You know, land (prices) used to be $50 an acre and now it’s $5,000, so maybe the compensation needs to change too,” he said, adding, “You know — times change.”

Braaten said gas and oil pipelines are 4 inches to 8 inches in diameter. Compensation for a one-half-mile stretch would be about $110,000. That compares to $1,350 per-acre payment Fred expects to accommodate a six-foot diameter buried water pipeline. Fred’s property — with a ten-acre easement — would bring $13,500 per a half-mile stretch. That’s a one-time payment.

DeKrey countered that the easement price being offered can’t be directly compared to the land value, because the farmer eventually will simply farm over it.

But Fred believes grain crop yields will be cut no matter how good reclamation is above the pipeline. He thinks production could be cut in half on 10 acres actually in the easement, but averaged over the tillable 150-acre quarter-section of land would decline by 5%. He thinks it could cost him $5,000 in any given year.

The Project has a “liberal” crop damage damage policy with “no end date” for applying for compensation, DeKrey said, adding the Project has hired a “soils group,” of educated soils technicians, a team to educate and oversee contractors to ensure topsoil goes back to original levels. Fred thinks it will be impossible to adequately restore topsoil that ranges from almost nothing to 18 inches or more.

Fred’s son, Sam Richter, 25, isn’t buying it. He speculated that with the slow pace of the project it may be his own children — not him — who struggle with the project.

“I’ll be fighting until it’s up to my land, and then fighting it when they try to come across it,” Sam said.

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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