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Change 'paves the way' for Red River diversion

BISMARCK -- The state will commit to its $450 million share of the Fargo-Moorhead area Red River diversion project if the Legislature agrees to amendments that were put into the State Water Commission budget Thursday.

The Senate Appropriations Committee removed an amendment to House Bill 1020 that capped state funding for the flood control project at $325 million instead of the $450 million requested by the Diversion Authority.

The amendment that was removed, proposed by Rep. Al Carlson, R-Fargo, and passed in the House, also had required the federal government to commit its share of the money for the project before state money could be spent.

Instead, an amendment was added Thursday that allows the state to spend money on the project as soon as it receives federal authorization. Authorization can come without an appropriation of federal funds, which will be needed eventually to complete the project.

"(The amendment) sends a message we are going to commit to this, recognizing there are several challenges and unanswered questions," said Sen. Tony Grindberg, who chaired a subcommittee that drafted the amendment. "There are a lot of moving parts yet."

One big part is whether the federal government will authorize or allocate funding toward the project, which was not included in President Barack Obama's 2014 proposed budget released Wednesday.

Fargo area chamber of commerce President and CEO Craig Whitney said in a release that the lack of specific federal funding for the diversion project is directly linked to the need for state support for the project.

"We need to take the president's budget proposal as a call to arms that local funding is inextricably linked to federal support of the project," he said. "The chamber will continue to work with our North Dakota and Minnesota delegations in Washington, who remain ever committed to the project, to ensure flood protection becomes a reality for our region."

The chamber had more than 25 members in Bismarck on Thursday to lobby lawmakers to support the bill so state funding is available for the diversion project.

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo said from Fargo that the changes to the bill were good news and will go a long way.

"I think there were a lot of things wrong with the amendments that needed to be corrected, and this goes a long way to take care of that," Vanyo said about the House version of the bill. "Before it was very damaging to us, and now it paves the way at the federal level to see we have continued state support."

The Senate version of the bill pushes the state's commitment to the project to $450 million.

The Legislature had previously committed $75 million. The current bill would add another $100 million over the next two years, leaving future legislatures to add the remaining $275 million.

The Diversion Authority already has spent about half of the original $75 million on the planning phase of the project.

But significant work can't begin without federal authorization.

Grindberg, R-Fargo, said the authorization requirement was included in the bill since Fargo would not be reimbursed by the federal government if it started building the project before authorization.

Sen. Bill Bowman, R-Bowman, one of the two no votes, said the amendments leave a lot at stake, especially for the upstream communities south of Fargo that are worried the proposed diversion project will divert floodwaters and wash out their property.

"It's nice if there's a way we can help both, and I don't know what that is. Anytime you have two people coming in and fighting, you're trying to find some middle ground," he said. "Is this all or none, or is something in here to help communities south and west of Fargo?"

Grindberg said he is relying on the Diversion Authority's promise to create an insurance pool to cover any crop losses that may come once the diversion is built.

Vanyo said the authority has approved the concept of an insurance fund and is still working out the details. Estimates say if crops in the entire staging area designated to temporarily hold back water during flooding were to be completely wiped out, the fund would need to have $15 million to $20 million. Vanyo said the authority is on board with that.

The full Senate still must approve the bill. It would then be sent back to the House, which could agree to the Senate changes or work out a compromise in a conference committee.