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Diversion Authority OKs more money for F-M diversion environmental review

FARGO — A tense meeting Thursday resulted in the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority granting more money to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to continue studying the environmental impacts of the proposed 36-mile flood channel.

The Diversion Authority approved an additional $695,000 for the DNR’s environmental review, which so far has a total price tag of almost $2.2 million. The vote was 7-1, with Cass County Commissioner Ken Pawluk in opposition.

The new money is meant to give the DNR more resources and staff to complete a draft of the review by May 2015. Once the draft is finished, the public will have a chance to comment on it. How long the public comment process will take is tough to estimate, said Randall Doneen, who manages the DNR’s environmental review unit.

“It’s very difficult to anticipate what the timeframe is going to be from the draft EIS (environmental impact statement) to the final EIS to the adequacy determination, which is the end of the process, until you know the number, nature and scope of the public comments,” Doneen said. “That’s why we have been hesitant to, you know, have any sort of strong date for the final EIS.”

Judging by environmental reviews of other projects, Doneen said it sometimes takes nine to 12 months between the completion of the draft review and that of the final version. Under that estimate, a final review would not be finished until 2016.

Given this news, Pawluk and other Diversion Authority members voiced frustration with the length of the environmental review process.

“It appears to me that Minnesota is standing in the way of flood protection for 92 percent of Cass County residents and income security to half of Clay County,” Pawluk said.

Doneen firmly refuted Pawluk’s assertion. “We have no interest in dragging this (environmental impact statement) out any longer than it has to. We want this thing done, but it needs to be thorough” and able to withstand legal scrutiny, Doneen said.

Diversion Authority members agreed that the environmental review needs to be thorough, but they also said they want to expedite the process. “Time is money for us,” Fargo City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed a federal environmental review of the $1.8 billion project in 2011. The DNR’s review, which began in February, is borrowing some from the federal review, but Minnesota laws require a state-specific study.

Looming over Thursday’s meeting was the DNR’s involvement in a federal lawsuit filed by Wilkin County, Minn., and Richland County that seeks to block construction of a feature of the diversion called upstream storage that would temporarily hold water over 32,500 acres in the event of a severe flood.

The Minnesota DNR joined the lawsuit after construction of the Oxbow-Bakke-Hickson ring levee began in June south of Fargo on the North Dakota side of the Red River. The DNR contends that the ring levee is part of the overall diversion project, while the Diversion Authority maintains that it has independent utility, meaning that it’s needed to protect flood-prone areas regardless of whether the diversion is built.

Because the ring levee will cut through the Oxbow Country Club, the clubhouse and some holes on the golf course will have to be removed. On Thursday, the Diversion Authority approved an agreement with the club to reimburse it for lost revenue, the purchase of new land and the replacement of facilities.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton said Friday he would visit Moorhead to discuss the project with local leaders. He will hold a public forum at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the City Council chambers at Moorhead City Hall. He also will hold a forum at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Wilkin County Courthouse in Breckenridge, Minn.

Dayton has urged the federal government to stop its work on the diversion until the DNR completes the environmenta, and has told the authority he has “serious reservations” about how it is handling the project.

“My goal is to ensure that all Minnesotans impacted have a full voice in the decision-making process,” Dayton said.

Forum New Service reporter Erik Burgess contributed to this report.