Local officials were quick to agree on the need for a real solution to Fargo-Moorhead’s chronic and worsening flood problem after the alarming record 2009 crest.
The need for action was obvious: If a well-timed snowstorm hadn’t intervened, delivering frigid temperatures that slowed the melt, Fargo might very well have lost that flood fight and suffered the same fate as Grand Forks and Minot, which suffered devastating floods in 1997 and 2011, respectively.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ initial recommendation was to build a diversion channel on the Minnesota side of the Red River — but officials on both sides of the river realized that was a political non-starter, and plans quickly coalesced around a North Dakota diversion.
Now, 12 years later, thanks to Herculean efforts from a host of local and state officials in both North Dakota and Minnesota, as well as federal officials, the long dream of having permanent flood protection in place is now on a sound path to completion in 2027.
On Friday, June 18, the Metro Flood Diversion Authority Board took historic action when it selected an international consortium of companies to design and build a key component of the project, a 30-mile diversion channel to divert Red River flows past the metro area during extreme floods.
That milestone means that the project is on track to be finished by 2027, a monumental achievement that took a dozen congressional approvals, passage of special sales tax levies in Fargo and Cass County, and hundreds of millions of dollars of support from the state of North Dakota and the federal government.
It’s taken an army of dedicated public officials, engineers, lawyers and financial consultants to get the $3.2 billion project to this point.
During the early days, late Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker was a vocal champion. Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney picked up the baton and carried it. A succession of Moorhead mayors — Mark Voxland, Del Rae Williams, Johnathan Judd and now Shelly Carlson — gave their support.
West Fargo Mayor Bernie Dardis was a major cheerleader for the project and served on a task force that helped salvage the project.
Darrell Vanyo, who was a Cass County commissioner, served as the first chairman of the Diversion Authority board and was instrumental in early efforts. He was joined by Scott Wagner and followed by Mary Scherling and Chad Peterson, all past or present Cass County commissioners.
Kevin Campbell, a Clay County commissioner and longtime Diversion Authority board member, has played a crucial role in gaining Minnesota support, with help from Grant Weyland and David Ebinger, fellow Clay County commissioners and diversion board members.
The entire North Dakota congressional delegation, past and present, has done the hard work of moving the project forward, starting with Sens. Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad and continuing with Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer as well as former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp and Rep. Kelly Armstrong.
Hoeven has played a critical role in securing funding, including a low-interest federal loan that will save hundreds of millions of dollars, and approvals, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota also has been a stalwart for the project.
The diversion has advanced with crucial support from all levels of the Corps of Engineers, with Terry Williams and Aaron Snyder playing important regional roles. Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman and Mark Bittner, now retired as Fargo city engineer, and his Fargo successor Nathan Boerboom. Former Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral worked behind the scenes. Diversion Authority lawyer John Shockley did much of the heavy legal lifting and Executive Joel Paulsen much of the coordination.
The North Dakota Legislature came through with overwhelming financial support, without which the project couldn’t be built. Critical early support came from former Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, who used his clout as House majority leader to gain state backing.
Finally, the milestone never would have been reached if Gov. Doug Burgum, working with former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, wouldn’t have formed a task force that helped revise the project after Minnesota denied a critical permit, one of the dark days in the project’s tumultuous history.
Now that we’re in the midst of drought, it’s easy to forget how close Fargo came to being inundated in 2009. Climate change is making our climate wetter. We know that an even worse flood looms in our future.
Thanks to the efforts of these people — and many more too numerous to mention here — we’ll be well prepared for the next record Red River flood. And we'll be able to do it without scrambling to fill sandbags and erect emergency levees.