Work to start next spring on $1B water pipeline; Fargo will be the project's biggest customer

An aerial view of the Lake Audubon embankment
An aerial view of the Lake Audubon embankment, which separates Lake Sakakawea, to the west, and Lake Audubon. Lake Audubon is the preferred source of water for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, which would divert Missouri River water to the Red River Valley in times of prolonged drought. Special to The Forum

FARGO — An infusion of $30 million will enable construction to begin next spring on a $1 billion pipeline that will deliver Missouri River water to the Red River Valley during periods of prolonged drought.

The Red River Valley Water Supply Project is a 165-mile pipeline meant to carry water from the Missouri near Washburn, north of Bismarck, and empty into the Sheyenne River above Baldhill Dam, a reservoir north of Valley City.

The pipeline, with a diameter of 72 inches, will carry 165 cubic feet per second of water — equal to 74,057 gallons per minute — to augment water supplies in central North Dakota and the Red River Valley during long periods of drought.

“We’ll certainly be able to continue,” although project backers had asked for $50 million, said Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District , which is managing the project. North Dakota legislators ended up designating $30 million for the project in this year's session.

Meanwhile, a recent federal appeals court decision allowing the Northwest Area Water Supply Project for Minot will be beneficial in the event the Red River Valley Water Supply Project faces a legal challenge seeking to block transfer of Missouri River water, state Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said.


The appeals panel rejected a challenge from the state of Missouri, which argued that transfer of water would deplete the Missouri River. Manitoba, which initially also sought to block the NAWS project, withdrew from the lawsuit.

Canada doesn’t object to transferring the water — its communities also could benefit from augmented flows on the Red River during extended droughts — but wants to make sure that no biological species can enter the basin, Stenehjem said.

The average annual discharge from Garrison Dam on the Missouri is 22,500 cubic feet per second — or more than 10 million gallons per minute — and was 12,000 cubic feet per second during the severe 1930s drought.

“It’s just a massive amount of water,” Stenehjem said.

The city of Fargo will be the largest customer for the state-backed project, which was spun off from the now-defunct Garrison Diversion Project, a federal water project designed for major irrigation in eastern North Dakota.

If the Missouri River were reduced to a pail of water, the water to be diverted for the Red River Valley Water Supply Project would amount to a few drops, Stenehjem said.

Garrison Diversion was intended to help compensate North Dakota, which lost 500,000 acres of prime Missouri River bottom land, he said. “We’re constantly reminding them it’s the Missouri River, not the river for the state of Missouri,” Stenehjem said.

Officials are eager to start construction of all three major components of the project — the intake, pipeline and outlet — so it can be “grandfathered in” under rules that will be revised by the Trump administration.


The concern is that the much less favorable “Waters of the United States” regulations from the Obama administration otherwise could apply, if legal challenges fail, DeKrey said.

North Dakota is among a group of states suing to eliminate the rule, which state officials and others argue is overly restrictive, and the rule has not taken effect in North Dakota because of the ongoing lawsuit.

“That’s still hanging out there,” DeKrey said.


Construction also is important to demonstrate “substantial reliance” on permits for the project, which could lapse from inactivity, he said. “Nobody wants to losemc the permit we’ve gotten to take water from the Missouri River,” DeKrey said.
Although Fargo-Moorhead has been plagued by recurring major floods over the past two decades, water scarcity from drought has long alarmed local officials.

The Red River’s flow trickled to zero for five months in 1934, during the “Dirty Thirties” decade-long drought. A 10-year drought of similar magnitude today would have an economic impact of $25 billion, according to the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District.

Design work is ready to enable construction of at least $150 million when money is available, DeKrey said.

“We are shovel ready,” he said. Bids for initial construction work will be requested this fall, and construction can start next spring.


A 10-year construction period would be optimal. A faster schedule would require premium prices for steel for the pipelines, for instance, and a slower schedule drives up inflation costs, DeKrey said.

“It goes up about $28 million every year the project is delayed,” he said, adding that the current price tag stands at $1.16 billion.

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