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Minnesota farmers upset over proposed flood diversion

MOORHEAD -- Right now, it's just a line on a map.

The red stripe marks the proposed route of a channel a half-mile wide in rural Clay County, an imprecise indication of where floodwater funneled away from Fargo-Moorhead by a billion-dollar ditch would go.

Last week's first peek at the potential path of the diversion, coming from the latest U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, has many who own and farm land along that route seeing red.

"We're just feeling out here, the landowners, like we're being run over," said Jimmie Nelson, who farms sugar beets and corn on 3,500 acres that lie right in the path of the diversion.

The $962 million project appears to cut through land that Nelson's been farming for 44 years. He said he's not worried so much how it will affect him. His concern is for his 30-year-old son.

"I'm on my way out. In another 10 years, I'll be 70. But he's going to be there. He's going to have to monkey with all that stuff. This is something that's never going to go away," he said.

It's not there yet. Army Corps studies have detailed plans for many projects. But federal funding, near-mandatory on an endeavor so expensive, requires that projects have a benefit-cost ratio of at least 1.0. Corps figures rank the Minnesota Short Diversion, the project that would cut Nelson's land in pieces, as having a ratio of 1.22, the highest of any project studied so far.

Farmers would be reimbursed for the land, but the money wouldn't address all the other problems created by a diversion.

"They're going to pay pretty good for the land they're destroying," said Francis Allen, who owns numerous plots along the diversion route. "But they mess up so much land alongside of it, and they don't pay you for that."

The release of the latest Army Corps report last week wasn't the first time a diversion in Minnesota has been broached, and corps officials say the location could change some. But it is the first time a path has been identified, giving a clearer grasp of what the ramifications would be.

David Swenson, a 44-year-old who farms corn, soybeans and wheat at the north end of the diversion route, said he thinks the channel could unfavorably alter drainage in the area.

"What are their plans if that's worse? Ring dikes? Are they going to move our farms?" Swenson asked. "It's real hard to be on board with any of this."

Wayne Brendemuhl, 48, farms land his parents own adjacent to the diversion path and owns land of his own nearby.

"It really hasn't sunk in yet," he said. "Where would the bridge be? It may turn a half-mile trip into five miles, 10 miles, 15 miles. Like when the interstate went in - everything will change."

By his own estimation, the diversion could eat up more than 300 acres of the Brendemuhl family's land - a loss that would hurt his operation significantly.

Nick Sinner of the Red River Valley Sugar Beet Growers Association said losing the land needed for a Minnesota diversion - up to 7,500 acres by the corps' estimate - wouldn't have much of an impact on the area's sugar industry.

"We have a pretty broad footprint," said Sinner, executive director of the group that represents 2,900 beet farmers in the region.

But Sinner said most beet farmers have figured there was little reason to worry about a Minnesota diversion because Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents the state's 7th District in Congress, said this spring he thought the plan had a "minus 5 percent" chance of being approved.

"Collin has been a great friend to the sugar industry. He usually follows through on his statements. We listen," Sinner said.

The sugar industry has also been a friend to Peterson. Since 1989, American Crystal Sugar's political action committee has been his second-largest donor, giving Peterson $84,585, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Peterson said last week that his comments about the diversion were based on his experience getting flood control for the Grand Forks, N.D., area after the 1997 floods, when the cost-effectiveness of a diversion was too low to warrant federal funding. Initial corps reports confirmed his assumption; the ratio was 0.65.

Peterson said he's getting a lot of calls from worried farmers, and he's telling them to contact local officials because local consensus is needed to get federal money for a project. Corps officials say they'd like a local group to back one of the options by Dec. 1.

The speed of the decision-making concerns Nelson.

"Where else does a project of this size move this fast? They want to get it in as fast as they can because they know it's fresh in everybody's minds," he said. "They'll agree with anything as long as they don't have to throw any sandbags."

Slowing down would provide more time to assess the benefit-cost ratio of North Dakota diversions, none of which have met the 1.0 standard. Nelson thinks those ratios could increase if Fargo-side diversions are studied further.

Many Clay County farmers also see the Minnesota-based proposals as unfair, since the corps estimates that lower-lying North Dakota will reap 90 percent of a diversion's benefits.

"I just wonder if the shoe was on the other foot, would Cass County be willing to donate all that farm land and tax base to save Moorhead?" Brendemuhl said. "I hope there's some appreciation for what some people will have to give up to save the cities."

Forum reporter Dave Olson contributed to this report