FARGO — Former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer is concerned that the cost of the $2.75 billion flood diversion project is spiraling “out of control” to the point it could become unaffordable.
Schafer made the comments in an email to a handful of state legislators last week — just as Diversion Authority officials were asking lawmakers to overcome a $120 million shortfall in additional state support for the flood-control project that aims to divert Red River floodwater around the Fargo-Moorhead area.
Schafer said he sent to three House members and one senator, and said he did not mean for his comments to be interpreted as opposition to the project.
“This is not to be construed at all that I don’t support the diversion,” Schafer said Monday, April 22. “I do support the diversion.”
Instead, he was suggesting to legislators that they consider earmarking $100,000 for a “cost-reduction study.”
Schafer said he has been talking to a group of business people and others who are “critical” of the diversion, and said he wants to try to bring people together for a discussion that will help the project move forward.
“I’m trying to bring the community together to support the diversion,” he said.
Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner and chairwoman of the Diversion Authority board, said a dialogue has taken place to reach consensus — the task force convened last year by former Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and current North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum.
The task force’s recommendations led to a compromise that resulted in design revisions that enabled the diversion to secure a crucial permit from Minnesota.
“This is the project they came up with,” Scherling said, referring to the revised project, which emerged as the viable solution of 33 alternatives and has permits from both North Dakota and Minnesota. “This project has been thoroughly studied and vetted.”
If the project were once again altered, it would shift impacts and generate new opposition, Scherling said.
“Is it perfect?” she said. “No.” But, she added, “We can’t keep studying this forever. It’s time to move forward.”
Mark Nisbet, Xcel Energy’s principal North Dakota manager and a leader in the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s support for the diversion, said he met with the group Schafer has been talking to.
“I was more than happy to go and listen,” he said.
Construction on the project will resume this spring with work on the inlet for the diversion channel. Also, contracts for the diversion channel will be solicited in the months ahead.
“There’ll be a bid on it,” Nisbet said. “We’ll see what those costs are.”
Schafer acknowledged that his complaints about the diversion’s costs are “late in the game.” As a result, with legislators winding down the session, he doubts his emailed comments will result in any legislative response.
He added, however, “It does seem that there’s a lot of resistance out there” to the diversion.
Rep. Jim Schmidt, R-Huff, said Schafer’s note did not affect lawmakers’ votes on funding for the diversion because it came so late in the session.