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Landowner disputes Fargo's southside diversion project

FARGO - The proposed project to protect Fargo's south side from flooding contemplates a possible diversion channel along North Dakota's Wild Rice River.

But before there can be a bypass, the project's backers first must get past Irene Olson, an elderly woman who owns farmland along the Wild Rice where the channel would be built.

Olson has refused to allow crews on her land in Stanley Township to conduct soil tests to determine whether the land is suitable for a diversion channel.

Last week, however, District Judge Wade Webb granted a request by the Southeast Cass Water Resource District to enter Olson's land to conduct soil tests.

"She does not want a flood project on her land, and she is concerned about the destruction of her land by pieces of heavy equipment that would have to travel across very productive farmland," said her lawyer, Jonathan Garaas.

Olson is considering an appeal, Garaas said, adding, "Her farmland would be cut in half" if the bypass is built. "It is very, very good agricultural land that has been in her family for literally generations."

The water resource district would resist any appeal and is intent to finish testing to determine the viability of the proposed flood project, which officials said would have spared south Fargo from much of the expense and disruption of building emergency dikes.

"It's very preliminary at this point," West Fargo lawyer Bob Hoy, who represents the water district, said of the flood project. "They've got something on paper. They don't know if it will work on the ground," without soil testing and environmental surveys.

The Olson case is the only instance so far of a landowner who has refused to grant access for crews to evaluate the suitability of land for the $161 million flood control project, said Mark Thelen, a member of the Southeast Cass Water Resource District board.

The Cass water district is seeking permission to enter about 300 parcels of land, but not all involve soil testing, Thelen said. Boring produces an opening the size of a golf hole, he added, and the district must restore any disturbed land.

Agreements have been reached with more than 75 percent of landowners in areas that would include flood project features, including levels and the Wild Rice bypass channel.

"Things are progressing forward," Thelen said.

The city of Fargo had hoped to begin construction on the project this fall, allowing it to begin protecting the city's south side and nearby rural subdivisions two years later. Water district officials believe that timetable is now too optimistic.

A completed southside flood project, which would protect against 100-year floods along the Red and Wild Rice rivers, would have spared Fargo from much of the expense and disruption of erecting 60 miles of dikes and sandbag barriers, said Mark Brodshaug, another water resource district board member.

"We could have eliminated many, many miles of dikes in Fargo," he said.