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Federal help unlikely for Red River Valley Water Supply

BISMARCK -- State Sen. Tony Grindberg said Thursday that federal approval to move forward with the Red River Water Supply Project will not likely happen, putting pressure on state and local governments to cover the full expenses.

The Fargo Republican, chairman of the Legislature's interim Water Topics Overview Committee, said he has spoken with staff members for U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp and John Hoeven about the plan to transfer water from the Missouri River to the Red River Valley. Both staffers, he said, are sure it will not happen.

"As a committee, we will need to understand what this all means," he said. "How much will the state have to participate and how long? There is going to have to be a local assessment, too."

The project is estimated to cost $660 million, according to a 2007 Environmental Impact Statement. A pipeline would connect to the McClusky Canal and travel near N.D. Highway 200, emptying into Lake Ashtabula.

The issue came up during the committee's five-hour meeting, in which the State Water Commission and Garrison Diversion Conservancy District provided updates of their projects.

Ken Vein, chairman of the board for the Garrison Diversion, which oversees the Red River Valley project, said water shortage is a real problem and everyone needs to know it, but the plan to mitigate the issue is sitting in the hands of the federal government.

Vein said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has to sign off on a formal decision to move forward. Once it is signed, Congress will still have to authorize the project, which is needed to receive any federal funding.

During a February meeting in Washington, Gov. Jack Dalrymple encouraged the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation to support the proposed project.

Dalrymple requested that then-Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issue a final determination in support of the water supply project.

Vein said the conservancy district is working closely with the three congressional delegates, "but nobody has been able to get it moving."

But Grindberg said now lawmakers will begin to push state water projects more than ever after passing a series of policy decisions and study resolutions during the legislative session.

"The Legislature made it clear, it's time to quit talking about it and start moving toward action items to get it done," he said.

Grindberg invited Barry Wilfahrt, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce for Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, Minn., and Tom Dawson with the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., chamber, to illustrate the need to get these projects moving and the help the business community can have in doing so.

"We want to see wealth creation and new job opportunities and growth in the valley, and having their voice and understanding may move the steps forward," Grindberg said. "At least get it to the halfway point where we are formalizing this and getting started."

Both chamber representatives highlighted how the availability of water is extremely important to existing industry and future opportunities, as it is becoming more difficult for their cities to recruit new business because of their water supply.

"Businesses thrive in a stable environment, and we struggle in uncertainty," Wilfahrt told the committee.

Vein said the water in the Red River already has been appropriated, so "we know it's a deterrent for (business) to come to us."

Mike Nowatzki

Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.