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Deadline set for choosing Red River Valley flood plan

FARGO -- Local officials received a "drop-dead" deadline Tuesday of summer 2010 for picking a permanent flood protection option.

But as the timetable for decision-making undergoes refinement, the most popular option so far - a diversion on the North Dakota side of the Red River - remains too expensive for federal funding.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said in the past that the picture may yet change, and that possibility was stressed again on Tuesday.

By continuing to trim costs, it may be possible for a North Dakota diversion to meet the necessary benefit-to-cost ratio of 1.0, said Aaron Snyder, a spokesman for the corps. The answer will likely come in late January or early February, he said.

Based on that timetable, the corps is now asking local officials to make a tentative commitment to a locally preferred plan by April, Snyder said Tuesday during a meeting of the Metro Flood Management Committee held in Fargo.

By July - September at the latest - the federal government wants local officials to spell out who would sponsor a diversion plan and how local jurisdictions will pay their share.

Flood management committee members told corps officials Tuesday they want three options explored in depth:

* A short diversion in Minnesota that would carry 35,000 cubic feet per second of water.

* E A 30,000-cubic-feet-per-second diversion in North Dakota

* E A 35,000 cubic-feet-per-second diversion in North Dakota.


The price of the Minnesota option is estimated at just under $1 billion.

Either of the North Dakota options would likely cost at least $1.3 billion.

The cities of West Fargo, Moorhead, and Dilworth, as well as Cass and Clay counties, have voiced support for a North Dakota project.

Snyder said Tuesday that a new possibility being explored is a North Dakota mini-diversion that could be built in conjunction with a Minnesota diversion.

"It looks like the only real extra benefits provided by a North Dakota diversion are in that northwestern portion - up by Harwood," Snyder said. "So, we were trying to figure out a way to capture those benefits, but yet not have quite as much of a cost."

The Fargo City Commission has yet to take an official stand on which option it favors.

Mayor Dennis Walaker said Tuesday that his first choice would be a North Dakota diversion, but he said if the federal participation isn't there, he would be compelled to back a Minnesota channel because he said doing nothing is not an option.

"We need a project. That should be our first goal," said Walaker

Downstream communities have voiced worries about what a diversion would do to their flooding, and Snyder said Tuesday that the corps is still studying potential impacts.

He said initial estimates that a diversion could raise downstream flood levels by 2 to 4 inches may be revised upward slightly.

Downstream angst

Any increase in downstream flood levels is unacceptable, said Diane Ista, a director with the Wild Rice Watershed District in northwest Minnesota.

"We just cannot take any more water," said Ista, who spoke at Tuesday's meeting, though she is not a member of the Metro Flood Management Committee, which is composed of elected officials from the cities of Fargo and Moorhead, Cass and Clay counties and local water boards.

Snyder said if downstream impacts are large enough, the federal government would participate in mitigation efforts, such as buyouts and ring dikes.

The options don't hold much appeal for Ista.

"Ring dikes, to me, are a Band-Aid," she said.

"Even though we have our ring dikes, we're sitting in there for two months," she said. "We have no access in and out. That's not helping our rural economy.

"Attention has to be on retention," said Ista. She hopes future meetings include updates on potential downstream impacts.

The flood management committee scheduled the next meeting of its smaller work group for Dec. 17.

Flood timeline

Federal officials are refining the timeline local officials must follow to keep a flood protection project on track.

As of Tuesday, the schedule looks like this:

* Late January or early February: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will let local officials know whether a North Dakota diversion qualifies for federal funding.

* Late April: Local officials must give tentative commitment to a specific project.

* By July, or September at the latest: Local officials must identify who will sponsor a project, have funding sources lined up for the local share of a project's cost and sign an agreement with the federal government.