Forum Editorial: North Dakota should fully fund its share of the diversion project

Legislators shouldn’t forget that inaction is expensive. The cost of the diversion increases more than $70 million every year it is delayed. Delays already have added $150 million in costs.
This is a rendering of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion's dam inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream. The inlet controls the flow of water from the dam into the diversion channel to reduce impact on downstream communities. Special to Forum News Service
This is a rendering of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion's dam inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream. The inlet controls the flow of water from the dam into the diversion channel to reduce impact on downstream communities. Special to Forum News Service

Thus far the North Dakota Legislature has been reluctant to come up with an additional $300 million to pay for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion. Appropriators’ fatigue has settled in after lawmakers have been asked, in session after session, to commit large piles of money for the project.

We understand legislators’ disgruntlement. But we remind them that the hallmark of leadership is to overcome obstacles and tackle stubborn problems.

The diversion is a mammoth public works project, with all the difficulties that entails, but we must never lose sight of the statewide significance of protecting North Dakota’s largest urban center, major economic engine and service hub.

In scanning the challenges that remain to be overcome it’s easy to overlook the significant progress that has been made to turn the $2.75 billion flood project into reality.

It has been authorized by Congress. The federal government has stepped up to commit its $600 million share of the project, recently signing a contract pledging to provide an additional $300 million to cover increased costs.

Those increased costs, by the way, came mostly in design changes that succeeded in winning approval from Minnesota regulators, who have granted a key permit for the diversion. Those changes came from a compromise that resurrected the stalled project.

The Minnesota state permit is on hold pending administrative challenges, including one by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District in Minnesota. But there is reason to be optimistic that the watershed managers will abandon the costly administrative appeal avenue and opt instead to address their concerns through their own permitting process.

In fact, because Minnesota issued its crucial permit, the dynamics of the legal challenges to the diversion have shifted decisively in the project’s favor. Diversion officials are committed to settling remaining concerns.

Importantly, Minnesota leaders in St. Paul and Washington now are behind the diversion, and want to see it’s completion — Moorhead, although higher than Fargo, also remains vulnerable to catastrophic floods, after all.

Where does all of this leave the North Dakota Legislature? With a good hand of cards, actually.

So far, legislators have been cautious, proposing an additional funding of $133 million, less than half of the $300 million requested. They’re wary of investing hundreds of millions, bypassing other needs, and seeing the money sidelined by legal snarls.

But leery legislators should focus on this: Diversion backers at the federal, state and local level have surmounted every obstacle so far. Even a casual observer can tell the project is gaining momentum.

It’s critical for North Dakota to step up — as our federal partners have done — with the remaining $167 million and match the additional $300 million the federal government will invest. The state can afford it, and should consider that sum an insurance premium at a bargain price. The diversion protects property worth $20 billion. And the state’s share of the project will be 32 percent of the total even with another $300 million, far short of the normal 60-plus percent state share.

Wahpeton-Breckenridge and Grand Forks-East Grand Forks have permanent flood protection.

Now, a full decade after surviving the record flood, it’s Fargo-Moorhead’s turn.

A failure by North Dakota to step up to the funding challenge will further delay the diversion, whose private partners want assurances the project is fully funded before risking millions of their own money to submit bids.

Legislators shouldn’t forget that inaction is expensive. The cost of the diversion increases more than $70 million every year it is delayed. Delays already have added $150 million in costs.

Let’s hope future generations be able to celebrate lawmakers’ visionary leadership instead of ruing their shortsightedness.