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Legislators look at water pipeline en route to Red River

FARGO — A key issue to decide whether the state joins local governments in a partnership to pipe Missouri River water to the Red River Valley: splitting the cost, estimated to range from $800 million to $1.1 billion.

Backers of the proposed Red River Valley Water Supply Project on Tuesday outlined the pros and cons of two possible routes for a pipeline to carry Missouri River water to supplement supplies in times of drought.

The presentations were made to an interim committee of the state Legislature, which project proponents hope will decide next year to support the project that has languished for years while waiting for federal support that ultimately evaporated.

Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, the influential House majority leader, “absolutely” backs the water supply project, which he said in an interview is of state significance.

But, he added, since the state already has pledged to provide $450 million toward the $1.8 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood control diversion channel, it will be a challenge to obtain legislative support.

“I think it’s going to be a real stretch for the state to wrap around two projects of such magnitude,” Carlson said.

He added: “This is crucial. We need to keep moving this forward.”

Luckily, oil revenues flowing into the state Resource Trust Fund, which pay for water projects, are exceeding projections, Carlson said.

If current revenues continue, the fund should reach about $700 million, he said, well more than the expected $520 million.

Dave Koland, manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is administering the water supply project, said proponents will ask legislators to provide $150 million per biennium over four two-year budget cycles, for a total of $600 million.

“I believe that’s a reasonable position,” he told board members of the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, a consortium of local governments, including the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks, working to build the water supply project.

After suggesting that level of funding to legislators Tuesday, Koland said the responses were not dismissive. “I’m not tarred and feathered,” he told board members in a meeting that followed the legislative meeting.

“The rubbing point will be how that total cost is going to be split,” said Bruce Furness, former Fargo mayor and chairman of the LAWA board. He advocates the state paying for more than half of the project’s cost.

If the state paid less than 60 percent of the pipeline project, the cost for local water users would be too high, Furness said in an interview.

During the legislative meeting, Todd Sando, the state engineer, said the North Dakota State Water Commission policy calls for paying between 50 percent and 60 percent of the cost of projects it supports, with the balance paid by local governments.

At the request of Gov. Jack Dalrymple, the state will hire an engineering firm to evaluate two water pipeline routes to transfer Missouri River water to the Red River Valley.

Either option would require treating the water before it crosses the watershed divide to satisfy concerns in Canada and Minnesota about transferring non-native species.

One option would pump water from near Washburn, north of Bismarck, through a pipeline that would jog north and generally follow Highway 200, discharging into Lake Ashtabula on the Sheyenne River, which empties into the Red River near Harwood.

That option, preferred by LAWA, would cost about $800 million.

Another route would pump water from just south of Bismarck along the Interstate 94 corridor to Fargo, with another pipeline segment running north to Grand Forks, at an estimated cost of $1.1 billion.

The value engineering study of the two options, with results expected by early summer, will help determine the best alternative, Sando said.

Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, chairman of the interim committee on water topics, said the upshot of Tuesday’s meeting should be a clear expression of the need for advancing the project, sought for decades.

“I think we need to send a message that we’re not stepping backwards,” Grindberg said, “we’re moving forward. That’s what needs to happen.”

Sando, the state’s top water projects administrator, said the Red River Valley Water Supply Project would serve multiple generations far into the future. He and others, including Furness, said it’s only a matter of time before a prolonged drought reduces the Red to a trickle, as has happened repeatedly in the past.

“This is for people the next 100 years in our state,” he said. “This is for future generations. There’s definitely a need.”

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. 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