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Water storage site search under way in valley

Rep. Collin Peterson

WEST FARGO - The hunt is on to find enough water storage sites in the Red River Valley to temporarily hold the equivalent of a lake covering 1 million acres at a depth of 1 foot.

If successful over time, the effort would reduce the flood peak along the Red River by 20 percent - enough to lower the 1997 flood crest by 2 feet at Fargo.

One of the groups spearheading the vast collaborative effort is the relatively new Red River Retention Authority, which unites the umbrella watershed districts in North Dakota and Minnesota under a joint powers agreement.

The search for the retention projects, still in the early stages, is considered realistic by water officials who view storage as an important component of comprehensive flood control, but not a cure-all.

The retention initiative could get a big boost from conservation programs administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, but a lot will be determined by the next farm bill.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Agriculture Committee, is working to include funding in the wetland reserve program to help pay for significant retention projects in the Red River Valley.

Peterson, who last week briefed the Red River Retention Authority board on his efforts, said he believes $238 million will be available for five eligible regional water projects, including the Red River Valley.

The next federal budget year begins Oct. 1, so Peterson urged the retention authority to have projects in the pipeline to take advantage of the expected funding opportunity. Matching funds also must be found.

"My message to you is to get on the ball here," Peterson said. "You need to get projects ready to go. It's there for the taking if you're ready to go."

But he stressed that the outcome of the next farm bill remains fluid, following last year's collapse of the congressional budget "supercommittee" that was charged with seeking federal budget cuts.

Peterson said the failed supercommittee's proposed farm bill provisions could provide a template for the contentious budget talks ahead.

"We're going to get the bill done at some point," he said. "I think this money is going to be in there."

The Red River Valley would compete for funding with four other regional water quality projects. They include initiatives in the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Florida Everglades and Ogallala Aquifer regions.

Chad Engel, a consulting engineer for the retention committee, said a team is using new computer modeling techniques to identify potential retention project sites throughout the Red River Valley, from Wahpeton, N.D., to Halstad, Minn.

The retention authority intends to have a slate of projects by Sept. 1, in time to vie for any federal funding that is available for wetland reserve projects, which include water retention.

Bill Hejl, who farms near Amenia, N.D., and serves on several water committees, said some small retention projects already are moving forward.

One would store about 4,600 acre-feet in Cass County along the Rush River, a tributary of the Red River.

Another retention site, on the upper Maple River, would hold 4,600 to 4,800 acre-feet.

"So we're moving forward," said Hejl, who is working with Peterson on the retention issue and serves on a retention authority committee.

Bigger projects also have been identified. For instance, in the Bois de Sioux River watershed, upstream from Fargo-Moorhead in Minnesota, officials have projects totaling 100,000 acre-feet under consideration.

Landowner participation is required for any project to proceed. Flowage easements, which keep the land in private ownership and on the property tax rolls, provide payments to the landowner in lieu of paying to purchase the land.

Keith Weston, the Natural Resources Conservation Service's Red River Basin coordinator, said more needs to be done to inform landowners about the opportunities available to them under the wetland reserve program.

Still, he added, a growing number of landowners are showing active interest. The agency expects to learn by the end of the month how many landowners, in partnership with local water district boards, are interested in tapping the program for the next round of funding.

Members of the MnDak Upstream Coalition, which opposes a retention project south of Fargo-Moorhead that is part of the proposed metro flood-control diversion channel, attended the retention authority meeting and said they support its efforts.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522