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Senate compromises on diversion funding

BISMARCK -- The Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project may not have to wait for complete federal funding to get started.

Senate lawmakers Wednesday reversed a decision that said state funding can be used only for levee and dike protection until the full federal share of the cost is appropriated by Congress.

By a 29-17 vote, the Senate approved an amendment offered by Sen. Tony Grindberg, R-Fargo, that says the Red River flood control project will still need to obtain federal authorization first, and adds that:

- The state must obtain a project partnership agreement with the federal government.

- The state is required to receive some federal money first.

- The project's budget must be approved by the state Water Commission before moving forward.

The difference between the Tuesday and Wednesday amendments is the current version of the bill, as amended Wednesday, says work on the project can proceed once the federal government provides any amount of money. The earlier version said complete federal funding was needed before the project could move forward.

"There was compromise indeed," Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the diversion authority, said about the amendment. "We can live with it. It provides us an opportunity be in a position to start work before next (legislative) session."

Vanyo said adding the requirement to have state Water Commission approval is not a problem because the diversion authority has continually provided monthly updates to the state.

It is unclear when the federal government will commit money to the project. President Barack Obama recently released a budget outline that did not include the diversion.

The federal government's share of the $1.8 billion project is more than $800 million.

The amendment passed Wednesday was attached to the Water Commission's budget, House Bill 1020. The bill allows for up to $450 million in state funds for the diversion. Local taxes also will help pay for the project.

In the meantime, state money would be available for just levee or dike protection for the Fargo area.

Vanyo said he's pleased the bill will go to a conference committee knowing the bill has the support of a Senate that agrees not to require full federal funding to proceed. The conference committee will resolve differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill.

Wednesday's floor debate picked up where it left off Tuesday afternoon, when an amendment to require full federal funding passed by a single vote.

Lawmakers agree the state's largest population center needs flood protection, but some, particularly legislators representing communities south of Fargo, say the current version of the project will only cause problems for the water retention area upstream from Fargo if there is a flood.

Sen. Terry Wanzek, R-Jamestown, has strongly opposed the current diversion project, arguing that it shifts the floodwater from the Fargo residents to the upstream communities to the south.

"The farmer in me has sympathy for the upstream guys," he said. "I hope no matter which way this goes, their concerns are addressed and followed up on in future years to make sure their negative impacts are alleviated if the diversion is built."

The bill will now have to be meshed with another piece of flood project legislation. Senate Bill 2233, which the House passed Wednesday morning, includes language requiring the diversion project to have federal authorization, but not federal funding, for the state to spend the $450 million toward the diversion project.

The bill was drafted to create new policies, goals and objectives for water projects around the state, including the Fargo flood control project.