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DNR gets earful from diversion friends, foes

MOORHEAD - There were many familiar voices and familiar arguments at a public hearing Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources held Wednesday night for the flood diversion project.

MOORHEAD - There were many familiar voices and familiar arguments at a public hearing Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources held Wednesday night for the flood diversion project.

Members of the Diversion Authority and their allies in the business community reiterated the economic harm the region faces from flooding.

Members of the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, who have sued the Diversion Authority, and their allies living south of the project complain about the harm the dam attached to the diversion would cause to them.

About 175 people showed up at the Courtyard by Marriott to learn more about the DNR's draft environmental impact statement and to tell the agency what they think of the report. State law requires an EIS when a dam like the diversion dam is built.

DNR staff asked that comments be limited to facts missing from the report or inaccurate facts, but most speakers went beyond that.

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Proponents

Many diversion supporters, among them Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, talked about how hard it was to fight the 2009 flood and how such emergency efforts do not provide adequate protection.

Moorhead City Council member Steve Gehrtz told DNR officials about how Moorhead residents depend on Fargo for work and vice versa. What happens to one will harm the other, he said, alluding to Fargo's greater vulnerability to flooding.

It's somewhat unusual because most Moorhead city leaders other than council member Nancy Otto, a Diversion Authority board member, have not expressed strong support for the diversion.

Gehrtz and some others supporting the diversion dismissed all alternatives to the diversion project that the DNR explored, including not building it and engaging in emergency flood fights as usual, and the so-called "northern alignment," which moves the dam farther north. This would reduce impact to Richland and Wilkin counties but the DNR found it would cost more and impact more buildings.

Diversion supporters pointed out it would also delay the project substantially because that alignment has not been vetted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The delay could cause the Federal Emergency Management Agency to re-map the floodplain and likely increase the number of Fargo-Moorhead homes required to buy flood insurance at a higher rate.

Opponents

For diversion opponents, the whole premise of the DNR's report was misguided.

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Lyle Hovland, a Wilkin County commissioner and a member of the Joint Powers Authority, said the EIS should have addressed the idea of storing water on farmland upstream. In fact, he said, storage projects are in progress.

DNR staff have ruled that alternative out because of the difficulty of getting landowners to agree.

Tim Fox, county attorney for Wilkin County, said the DNR failed to consider Executive Order 11988, which requires federal agencies not to to help communities build inside of floodplains. The JPA lawsuit made the same point, complaining that the footprint of the diversion project is overly large to give Fargo room to grow south.

Mark Askegaard, who farms in rural Moorhead, said the DNR failed to look at a diversion alignment in Minnesota that would've been cheaper and had less impact.

The Corps of Engineers had studied that alignment and initially found it more beneficial but a later study found a diversion on the North Dakota side would protect more land. In addition, the corps noted that Minnesota residents felt that North Dakota would benefit more from the diversion and were unhappy that only they would suffer the impact. As a result, the Diversion Authority favored a North Dakota alignment and the Corps of Engineers agreed to it. The Minnesota alignment was no longer considered after that.

The DNR's comment period continues until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 28. Agency staff said at the hearing they wouldn't respond to individual comments but would release a final EIS with responses to all. After the EIS process is completed, the Diversion Authority would still have to apply for a permit to build the dam.

To comment: Submit comments to environmentalrev.dnr@state.mn.us or Jill Townley, Environmental Policy and Review Unit, Box 25, Ecological and Water Resources Division, DNR, 500 Lafayette Road, St. Paul, MN 55155-4025. For more information, go to bit.ly/1G6EYbx

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