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Diversion supporters celebrate ‘milestone’

MOORHEAD, Minn. — For diversion advocates, Friday was a day for celebration.

A federal water projects bill authorizing the proposed $1.8 billion flood channel around Fargo-Moorhead passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday and now awaits an expected signature from President Barack Obama.

Federal authorization deserves celebration, advocates said Friday in a news conference at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber office in Moorhead.

Worrying about getting more than $800 million in federal appropriation can be saved for later, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

“One thing that we are not taking advantage of, and that is the ability to celebrate what has happened,” Walaker said. “This is a big step, guys.”

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo repeated a word used by many during the news conference: milestone.

“I almost feel like shouting out: ‘A round for the house!’ There’s coffee in the back,” Vanyo joked, which elicited an uproar of laughter from the audience of business and community leaders, and local and state lawmakers.

Congressional authorization does not guarantee any federal dollars for the project, but merely a spot in line to seek federal funding.

Nathan Berseth, a spokesman for the MnDak Upstream Coalition, which opposes the diversion project, said in an interview Friday that authorization is a “far cry” from appropriation.

“To herald this a milestone? It’s a hurdle, but I don’t know if it’s a big milestone,” Berseth said. “There’s thousands of projects throughout the country that have been authorized that haven’t received appropriations.”

While celebratory speeches were made at Friday’s news conference, proponents did talk about appropriation and possibly taking advantage of alternative financing models spelled out in water projects bill to help fast-track the proposed diversion.

One possible funding model is called a public-private partnership, or P3, pilot program, which would allow the diversion to seek out a private partner to help finance the project instead of battling for federal appropriation in Congress every year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers head office will select at least 15 authorized water projects nationwide to be a P3 pilot project, and local officials think the diversion has a shot.

But Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he is still focused on getting traditional federal appropriations for the project for fiscal year 2015.

Vanyo said the diversion can work on appropriation and locking in an alternative finance model at the same time, and possibly use both pots of money to accelerate the project.

“(Hoeven) can work on one aspect of it, and together we can work on the alternate means of financing that’s in the WRRDA (Water Resources Reform Development Act) bill,” Vanyo said. “We really like that language. It gives us an option. It doesn’t mean that that’s the only option, but we can work on all of these to try and find funding.”

Hoeven said he cautioned against putting all the eggs in the alternative financing basket, though.

“There’s a lot that goes into it, and you have to find a developer that wants to do it,” he said. “But it’s something we’ll talk about.”

Berseth said the alternative finance models allowed by WRRDA should be a “grave concern” to local taxpayers.

“Buyer beware,” he said. “They start with this construction, authorization is never fully funded and the North Dakota and Minnesota taxpayers are picking up the tab.”

While it’s optimistic, Vanyo said construction of the actual diversion channel could begin next spring.

“Maybe a year from now, maybe we can actually be starting on the project,” he said.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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