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Forum Editorial: North Dakota shouldn’t dither in delivering water to the Red River Valley

North Dakota needs to pick up the pace in building a pipeline to deliver water to the Red River Valley to avoid inflationary cost increases and to ensure water supplies during prolonged droughts.

Editorial FSA
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It’s hard to imagine what life would be like if Fargo found itself in the midst of a long and severe drought that required trucks to haul 1,500 loads of water daily to meet indoor water needs.

But officials calculate that’s what it would take in the event of a drought of the magnitude and duration of the one that slowed the Red River to a trickle and then to a standstill during the 1930s — a need that would rise, with a growing population, to 4,900 truckloads by 2075.

It’s hard to imagine, but it shouldn’t be unimaginable, given our past and the scorched earth left by the megadrought gripping the American West.

In fact, some drought-stricken states are eying the Missouri River as a possible water source — a development that should shake Bismarck officials from their plodding pace in building the Red River Valley Water Supply Project.

That project, now under construction, would take Missouri River water from Washburn north of Bismarck and pipe it east, roughly following the North Dakota Highway 200 corridor, and empty it near Cooperstown into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red.

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The $1.3 billion pipeline would be capable of providing water to up to half of North Dakota’s population along its route through central and eastern North Dakota, including Fargo and Grand Forks.

So far, the project is proceeding at a glacial pace. Last year, amid great fanfare, crews laid the initial 1.2 miles of pipe. That’s expected to be extended by 4.5 miles this year and next, or a total of about 10 miles over three years — a woefully slow pace that would take 20 to 30 years to complete given that the length of the pipeline is 167 miles long.

We have to pick up the pace. As local officials have learned from the flood diversion project, delays drive up costs considerably. What once was a $1.8 billion diversion over time became the $3.2 billion project it is today, thanks largely to inflation.

A decade ago, officials were speaking of a $660 million Red River Valley Water Supply Project, a bargain compared to the current price tag.

Officials of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is spearheading the water project, will present the 2023 session of the North Dakota Legislature with a proposal to finish the project in six years.

That would require investments of $300 million to $400 million per two-year budget cycle, which won’t be easy to do. But it would save taxpayer money,

A six-year construction timeline, with completion in 2027, would result in a cost of $1.48 billion, assuming moderate inflation. But in a high-inflation environment, the cost would rise to $1.55 billion.

A slower, 10-year construction period, with completion in 2031, would result in higher costs, running from $1.56 billion assuming moderate inflation to $1.65 billion with high inflation.

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Time, after all, is money. Failure to build the project over a reasonable period could impose other costs as well, in terms of lost opportunities.

Agricultural processing is one of North Dakota’s most viable industries, but it’s water intensive, and development in the crop-rich east is constrained or blocked altogether by a lack of water.

We shouldn’t forget that North Dakota paid a steep price for the Missouri River dams that provide flood control, hydropower and water recreation for a wide swath of the Midwest. Garrison Dam’s Lake Sakakawea and Oahe Dam’s Lake Oahe flooded hundreds of rich bottomland in North Dakota.

Those sacrifices shouldn’t be pointless. North Dakota needs to build the water supply pipeline sooner rather than later, and lawmakers should be open to bonding or creative financing through the Bank of North Dakota if necessary.

All other regions of the state have assured water supplies. Now it’s the Red River Valley’s turn.

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