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Minnesota, North Dakota want flood force

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty addresses a representative of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during an unprecedented meeting of local, state and federal representatives hosted by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan on Tuesday in the Capitol in Washington. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)1 / 3
Officials from flood-affected areas around Fargo-Moorhead attend a meeting of local, state and federal representatives hosted by U.S. Sen. Byron Dorgan on Tuesday in the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)2 / 3
Brigadier Gen. Michael Walsh, right, of the Army Corps of Engineers, visits with Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker prior to a meeting of local, state and federal officials of flood-affected areas around Fargo-Moorhead on Tuesday in Washington. (Michael Vosburg/The Forum)3 / 3

WASHINGTON - The Red River basin needs an organization spanning both sides of the Minnesota/North Dakota border that can wield enough authority to push through politically difficult measures, such as creating storage areas for floodwater.

An outfit overseeing the basin with broad arm-twisting power would go a long way toward answering the question posed Tuesday by North Dakota Democrat Sen. Byron Dorgan: "Who's the symphony director here?"

The need for a basin-wide authority was a key point of agreement among local, state and federal leaders at a first-of-its-kind meeting at the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday to discuss comprehensive and permanent flood control along the Red.

"This is something that's always been a problem," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said of the lack of an overarching authority.

A new agency with clout along the Red wasn't the only subject by any stretch. Top officers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were on hand, and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven pushed on whether Fargo's already-designed southside flood control - a $161 million project the corps didn't fund or plan - might count as part of a comprehensive flood protection system for Fargo-Moorhead.

But no issue saw more consensus than the suggestion of a Red River oversight group empowered to compel action. Though there was strong support for the idea - no one objected when Dorgan asked if anyone was opposed - how the basin authority would work was far from decided.

Dorgan suggested Hoeven and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty could hash out the details, and Hoeven said he would discuss with Pawlenty a compact between the states and the federal government.

Pawlenty, however, said he would like to see such a group grow from the local level, perhaps forming from the Red River Basin Commission - a group that Walaker, an alternate member, said had "absolutely no authority."

Minnesota state Rep. Morrie Lanning, a Republican who represents Moorhead, said a basin authority is not a new thought. He first suggested it in 1979. And he, too, would like to see the group spring from the grass roots.

"We need local ownership," Lanning said.

It's still nowhere near a done deal, Pawlenty pointed out in a teleconference after the lunch-hour meeting.

"It's a concept at this point, an idea," Pawlenty said.

Discussion of the authority came up after several officials said floodwater retention needs to be a big part of a comprehensive plan for the Fargo-Moorhead area, which the Army Corps is studying.

U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad,

D-N.D., said holding back water before it hit the Red could take pressure off the river when it floods.

"Without it, I think we'll end up building more diking than we need," Conrad said.

Retention has always been a tough sell with farmers, whose fields are often used for the storage. Conrad said those farmers would need to be compensated, and Walaker said those payments could be similar to programs that reimburse crop losses due to disasters.

Rep. Collin Peterson, the Democrat who represents Moorhead and northwest Minnesota in Congress, said while flood control projects are always fraught with competing interests, the 2009 flooding may have softened some of the most hardheaded.

"I sense a change out there amongst people," Peterson said. "Everybody's got to compromise, including me. I've been one of the worst."

Retention will be one of the options included in the preliminary results of an Army Corps study of flood control for Fargo-Moorhead, which are set to come out in the next month. Brigadier Gen. Michael Walsh said the study will estimate the cost-benefit ratio of various different types of flood control. These figures will be calculated both with and without the southside project included, he said.

The corps feasibility study is one of the key steps toward a federally funded flood control system. If approved, the federal share of Army Corps projects is typically 65 percent of the cost, with the other 35 percent coming from local and state sources.

Conrad said the split of the local costs would depend on how the benefits break down. For example, if the study shows that North Dakota would have 80 percent of the benefit, governments on that side would pick up 80 percent of the local match.

After the preliminary results come out, local officials will have to agree on which options appeal to them - assuming the cost-benefit ratios show more benefit than cost. If they can't agree, no federal project will happen. That local consensus will have to be speedily reached for the final version of the report to be ready by its December 2010 deadline, "or we're just not going to be able to hit that," Walsh said.

Hoeven pressed Army Corps officials on whether they could provide an assurance earlier than the end of next year that the southside project could be considered the first phase of any corps-directed flood control system.

Walsh said there would be no guarantees.

"It's not a project until it's a project," he said.

Hoeven said it's important to find out because southside control - paid for with $75 million each from Fargo and North Dakota, and $11 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency - could count as a portion of the local match on a larger system, for which early estimates have run as high as $1 billion. It might also affect the cost-benefit analysis, he said.

Walaker said part of the worry is that the southside project has "zero impact to the Red," which could hurt its chances of being included as part of the corps plan.