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Local watershed action throws wrench into Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project

In 1997, homes in the Lincoln Drive area of Grand Forks, ND, were evacuated hours before the dikes gave way, flooding the homes with about eight feet of water. (Grand Forks Herald/Jackie Lorentz)1 / 2
This is a rendering of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion's dam inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream. The inlet controls the flow of water from the dam into the diversion channel to reduce impact on downstream communities. Special to Forum News Service2 / 2

You'd think it would be a simple matter to build a $2.75 billion, 30-mile flood diversion ditch around the Fargo-Moorhead area, but turns out it's kind of complicated.

The latest leak in the plumbing is a 3-2 vote by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District Board, giving the go-ahead to officially contest a 54-condition permit issued in December by the Minnesota DNR.

If the watershed district goes through with its contested case hearing, it could put the project on hold for another year or two, at a cost of $128,000 a day, according to representative of the diversion project from Cass and Clay counties.

Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell and Cass County (N.D.) Commissioner Mary Scherling, both vice chairs of the Diversion Authority Board, met with Becker County commissioners Tuesday to brief them on the project.

Not very coincidentally, one of the three Buffalo-Red River Watershed District Board members that voted to contest the DNR permit, John Hanson, was appointed by Becker County.

If the diversion board members were hoping that Becker County commissioners would put pressure on Hanson to change his vote, they're going to be disappointed. The board took no action and he has received no calls from commissioners.

"I guess they think it's my decision," said Hanson, who has sat on the watershed board since 2002 and grows corn and beans north of Audubon.

"It's a tough decision," and probably the most controversial vote he's been involved in since he joined the watershed board. "There's pros and cons on both sides, and I'll listen to people on both sides," he said.

Why did he vote to contest the DNR permit? "A second look, that's the best way to put it," he said.

But he's not married to his original vote, he added, quoting a saying he heard recently: "People that can't change their minds can't change anything."

The diversion board members want the permit challenge resolved before an administrative law judge is appointed to the case. After that, they say the scope of the hearing becomes much larger, because of the geographic size of the watershed district, and opens the field to more challengers.

A quick resolution is a possibility, said Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District.

"It's fair and honest to say I don't think we're that far apart," he said of the watershed district and the DNR. He said watershed officials will meet in St Paul with DNR officials later this month to discuss watershed questions on three issues:

- How will the DNR enforce its 54 permit conditions and who will do that on its behalf?

- The timing of some of the language in the permit defies common sense, such as allowing a dam to be built before storage easements are in place.

- Clarifying some of the permit conditions that are now subject to interpretation. By not being clear now, "they're setting themselves up for future litigation," Albright said.

"We just need some answers and see where it goes," he said, adding that it helps to have some leverage when dealing with the agency, although he admits it will cost some money for the watershed district to carry through on its challenge.

He said diversion officials are "making a lot of noise" with the estimate that the watershed's delay will cost the project $128,000 a day. "We don't know where those numbers came from and we don't believe they are correct," he said.

Meanwhile, the watershed district's own permitting process for the diversion project started Jan. 28.

"We'd like to tour the area and meet with some landowners," Albright said. "Our legal counsel is advising us to hold a permit hearing, so the board can take testimony before making a decision." That hearing will likely be held in early April, he said. "We want to work with the diversion project, but big projects take time. In the watershed world, the word is perseverance," he said.

The watershed board meets today (Monday) but he doesn't believe any diversion-related issues will be ready for action yet.

Campbell, the Clay County commissioner, told the Becker County Board that delay is not just costly, it could be catastrophic to the Fargo-Moorhead metro area if a major spring flood occurs before the diversion is built.

"We don't want to see devastation like we saw in Grand Forks (in 1997)," he said. "That would impact the economy for a long time."