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Will West Fargo foot flood diversion bill?

On Wednesday, the Sheyenne River crested - days after the Red River.

"In the Horace Diversion, we reached pretty much the same peaks as last year," said Kevin Bucholz, West Fargo city engineer. "And all the ice pretty much came out, so it's starting to go down."

For the time being, the worst is behind the valley. But there's another storm brewing on the horizon, one that could potentially carry a heavy price tag: the North Dakota diversion.

If the powers that be decide to dig a ditch diverting flood waters from the Red River through North Dakota, who's going to foot the bill? Will it be Fargo's problem? Will the state or national government pitch in?

And what about West Fargo, which already picked up the tab for its own diversion?

"As of right now, we have not been asked nor have we volunteered to pay for anything," said Jim Brownlee, West Fargo City Administrator. "But that doesn't mean it won't happen."

That question and others have arisen lately during talks spurred by local governments, particularly now that all signs seem to point away from a diversion on the Minnesota side of the river

"I know West Fargo had initially been involved in some of those flood and diversion meetings," said Sharon Schacher, city Finance Director. "But the way it stands right now, I don't think we're in the mix: we have our diversion."

Brownlee said that, with the Sheyenne diversion, most of West Fargo already has protection in place for a 500-year category flood. "South of the Interstate, however, only has 100-year protection," he said.

Even though city and county officials are favoring a North Dakota diversion, the Minnesota-side plan currently is the only one backed by the Army Corps of Engineers. If passed, it would receive 65 percent of funding from Congress. Any other plan, upon Congressional approval, likely would receive a lower percentage of federal funding.

So far, very little is known as to how this undertaking of a North Dakota diversion will occur, which would begin north of Oxbow, bisect four rivers along the way, and end near Georgetown. Local officials estimate roughly $1.3 billion dollars is needed to construct a diversion capable of flowing water at 35,000 cubic feet per second.

"The North Dakota diversion offers the most protection for the greatest amount of people," Bucholz said. "It helps rural areas in greater Cass County. The Minnesota diversion does not."

Last Wednesday, Fargo and Cass County officials said they were discussing how a half-cent sales tax might help fund the project. If that's the case, "of course anyone who buys anything will have to pay," Brownlee said. As far as West Fargo pitching in: "Only the four entities who've paid for the studies (Fargo, Moorhead and Cass and Clay Counties) have talked about payment."

Another option would be issuing special assessment bonds.

"West Fargo wouldn't do that," Brownlee said. "But the county could."

At the Metro Flood Study vote March 18, which resulted in the recommendation for a North Dakota diversion, Cass County Commissioner Scott Wagner revealed a preliminary cost-sharing plan. In it, North Dakota was left with nearly half the financial burden, assuming $565 million came from federal aid and Minnesota paid $100 million.

North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven already had said the state would pay for half of the local share. That leaves $315 million, of which $100 million would come from a Fargo flood projects sales tax that was approved by voters last year, and $10 million from Cass County's mill levy.

The remaining $205 million could be paid with the aforementioned special assessment bonds. Homes would average $203 a year during a 25-year span, while commercial properties would average $1,092. The assessments could go lower, however.

"There also has been a discussion about a tiered assessment," Brownlee said. If that were the case, areas more directly benefiting from the diversion would have to pay more, he said, "but it's way too early to tell."

All the numbers shown at the Metro Flood Meeting are merely estimates and very preliminary.

"We're waiting to see what the state contribution is going to be," Brownlee said. "And besides, they still don't even have the go-ahead to build the North Dakota diversion."

For now, West Fargo officials will bide their time until more information becomes available.