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Obama's budget snubs F-M diversion

FARGO -- For the first time in four years, President Barack Obama's annual budget proposal doesn't provide funding for the Fargo-Moorhead diversion project, which the chairman of the Diversion Authority said may slow the project but won't stop it.

The president has earmarked a total of $22.5 million in the past three years, including $5 million last year, for design and environmental impact analysis of the proposed $1.8 billion diversion flood channel around the metro area. The Diversion Authority has matched the federal contribution with local funds, including $29 million last year.

But Obama's 2014 budget released Wednesday sets nothing aside for the diversion, and it slashes the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' civil works program by 5.5 percent from 2012.

Diversion Authority chairman Darrell Vanyo said Congress could still appropriate money for the project, or the corps could allocate money from its budget. He said he spoke Wednesday morning to corps officials, who he said were "very guarded" about that possibility.

"I'm sure that somehow the corps will come up with something," he said.

Aaron Snyder, project manager for the corps, said corps officials are hopeful they can find money for the diversion as they go through a work-plan process for funding provided by the continuing appropriations act for fiscal year 2013, which the president signed into law last month.

"The corps continues to support it, and it is a high priority project," he said.

In a joint statement, North Dakota's congressional delegation said the omission from Obama's budget "is clearly unfortunate, since it will make our task of securing the federal share of project funding harder." The diversion has yet to be either authorized or funded by Congress.

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., noted the project took a big step toward congressional authorization last month when a Senate committee passed the 2013 Water Resources Development Act, which includes support for the diversion. Hoeven said he hopes the bill will reach the Senate floor this month or in May. The House also must approve it.

Hoeven also said the diversion is a "wise expenditure" for the federal government, which will be asked to cover about $700 million, or 40 percent, of the project, compared with the 75 percent of the tab it picks up in disasters.

"It makes more sense, in both dollars and human terms, to find a permanent solution to Fargo-Moorhead's flood risk than it is does to mount an almost annual flood fight," Hoeven, Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer and Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said in the joint statement.

Snyder noted the president's budget includes only $6.1 million for pre-construction engineering and design (PED), which is the current phase of the diversion project. And the majority of that money is designated for waterway navigation and environmental restoration projects, with none for river flooding projects, he said.

"So it's really kind of showing that the program has almost been cut dramatically, and it might not necessarily be an indication of the support for the (diversion) project," he said, adding,

Vanyo said that if the federal contribution ends up being less than this year's $5 million, "then it's left up to us to decide to continue in some fashion with some of the things that obviously are being talked about right now, and that's continued levee work and hopefully some mitigation to the south."