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F-M flood diversion task force options look a lot like current plan

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, from right, N.D. Gov. Doug Burgum and Minn. Gov. Mark Dayton listen to Lance Yohe of the Red River Basin Commission during a meeting of The Fargo-Moorhead Area Flood Diversion Task Force on Monday, Nov. 13, 2017, at the Fargodome. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — From what would've been a list of more than 70 potential alternatives to the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion, a task force seeking to reconcile the project with Minnesota regulations agreed to a much shorter list at its meeting on Monday, Nov. 13.

Though task force members skeptical of or opposed to the $2.2 billion project showed interest in looking at radically different alternatives, many long-standing constraints appear to have steered the group back to something resembling the existing plan.

The group ruled out, for example, any project with a diversion channel running through Minnesota or any that relied primarily on distributed storage, a system of hundreds of temporary water storage ponds located on farms around the region. The existing plan includes a channel through North Dakota and an upstream dam that's been unpopular with upstream landowners.

"This is a challenging, complex solution we're looking for because there's a number of constraints on the project. We've identified a number of those in the working group," North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said after the meeting. "We said we want to maintain federal authorization. We want to achieve (Federal Emergency Management Agency) accreditation so we don't have to buy flood insurance. We want to minimize upstream and downstream impact. And we want to achieve a Minnesota permit. Often those design constraints can be in conflict with one another."

"I think we made excellent progress today," said Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dayton and Burgum, the task force chairmen, founded the task force after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources refused to issue a permit for the project and persuaded a federal judge to temporarily halt work during a lawsuit the agency filed against the U.S Army Corps of Engineers.

The task force's alternatives will now be vetted by a technical team that includes engineers and planners from the DNR and from member entities of the Diversion Authority, most of whom had served on an earlier team that also sought to reconcile the project with Minnesota regulations.

No Minnesota channel

The technical team came before the task force Monday with 11 alternatives that it considered viable. These include a big dam on the Red River with no diversion, a diversion through Minnesota, a combination of water storage and a diversion with no dam, and the diversion project with a dam moved farther north.

Jill Townley, a DNR project manager, said these are the options her agency believes can be accredited by FEMA, meaning that properties protected by them are taken out of the 100-year flood plain and enjoy reduced flood insurance rates as a result.

Task force members from Clay County were alarmed by the idea of a Minnesota diversion, which former Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration had ruled out.

Clay County Commissioner Jenny Mongeau and Moorhead City Council member Joel Paulsen said such a channel would put an aquifer at risk that Moorhead uses for its water supply.

Dayton put that matter to rest when he said a Minnesota diversion is "a nonstarter."

The task force also ruled out distributed storage after hearing from Moore Engineering's Chad Engels, who's worked on water storage projects around the area.

He said the causes of flooding, such as where drainage basin snowpacks are found and how much water they contain, vary so much that it's hard to predict how a storage project would perform. He said he thinks such a plan would not likely get FEMA accreditation.

The DNR had earlier ruled out distributed storage because it would take much too long to convince all the landowners involved to agree.

That was only reinforced Monday by Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed in Minnesota, who said it's taken his organization 13 years so far to put together a water storage project in Wilkin County, though he said some of that was just waiting for funding.

Congressional dollars

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer also highlighted its own constraints Monday.

Col. Sam Calkins, commander of the corps' St. Paul District, told the task force that Congressional authorization for the project requires that it must contain a diversion channel, a dam and environmental mitigation to meet federal standards. He said also that projects must not change more than 20 percent.

Authorization is what allows the corps to be involved and allows for $450 million in federal funding, representing a fifth of the total cost of the diversion. Some task force members had suggested that some alternatives could save so much money that the federal government wouldn't need to be involved.

Dayton, who has clashed with the corps in the past over the diversion, said the agency made a good case for itself. If there's going to be a dam and a diversion, the corps will need to design them and take liability for them should they fail, he said.

Burgum said he agreed.

That suggests both governors are inclined to go with a project plan that wouldn't be all that different than the one the Diversion Authority and corps want to build.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said he could envision the technical team making changes to that plan to reduce the amount of land taken out of the flood plain, a key concern for the DNR because that would displace more water into other areas that might not now flood.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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