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Diversion officials bristle at cost of wetland restoration

FARGO — It will take more than a half-million dollars to mitigate the impacts of an upstream ring levee on local wetlands, a cost some metro-area flood diversion officials have trouble swallowing.

“It’s a little bit like highway robbery,” said Cass County auditor Michael Montplaisir, before the Diversion Authority’s finance subcommittee voted unanimously — and somewhat reluctantly — on Wednesday to approve the expense.

To build a ring dike around the upstream communities of Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke south of Fargo, the Diversion Authority will need to pay $587,180 to mitigate impacts to local wetlands.

The three communities are in the $1.8 billion diversion’s “staging area,” which would be intentionally inundated during major flood events to hold water before it’s channeled around the Fargo-Moorhead metro area.

That’s a wetland mitigation cost of $34,000 per acre for the roughly 17 acres of wetlands that will be disturbed by the ring levee. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is requiring that North Dakota Ducks Unlimited perform the federally required wetland restoration work.

More than just sticker shock, some diversion officials were also noticeably frustrated that their hands are tied — they can’t get an appraisal or seek a better price on the open market.

“I wish I could give you an alternative,” said Bruce Spiller, a diversion consultant. “The only thing the corps would accept is Ducks Unlimited, and they get to sort of name their price.”

That per-acre price is based on the cost of land and restoration, staff time and future maintenance of the restored wetlands, said Tim McNaboe, a mitigation specialist at North Dakota Ducks Unlimited.

The nonprofit conservation group will find 17 acres of wetlands to restore in lieu of those acres lost to the ring levee, and then will maintain those newly restored wetlands, McNaboe said.

“There is a cost to it that I don’t think everyone really realizes,” he said. “It’s not just an appraisal on what a wetland or a piece of land would cost or what it’s worth.”

McNaboe said his group is just one option and that infrastructure project managers are not required to choose it.

“They have the option of doing it themselves,” he said.

But Spiller said the corps would not budge on the issue.

“We tried to negotiate with the corps and say, ‘Are there other options?’ ” he said. “And they said, ‘No, we really want you to use that program.’ ”

The Oxbow-Hickson-Bakke ring levee is in total disturbing about 30 acres of wetlands, but 13 of those acres are being restored as part of the levee project, Spiller said.

About 10 of the 13 acres will be restored in the eastern portion of what is now the Oxbow Country Club in the section that will be outside the levee. The other three acres are roadside ditches that will be made up within the project, Spiller said.

He said they expected the cost of the restoration for the 17 acres to be around $500,000, and that the work for the other 13 acres will also come at some expense.

“We hope it won’t be $34,000 an acre,” Spiller said.

Crews began building the ring levee late last month, even while its construction is the heart of a new lawsuit filed against the Diversion Authority by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority.

The JPA, which opposes the current diversion plan, argues that building the ring dike prior to the completion of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources environmental study of the diversion would violate Minnesota law if other, less-damaging alternatives exist.

Diversion proponents claim the ring dike is needed to protect those communities from flooding regardless of the diversion.

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
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