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Congressional delegation: Don't let squabbling threaten diversion project

FARGO -- Fresh from the passage of a funding bill that could pay for the flood diversion, North Dakota's congressional delegation cautioned Diversion Authority officials Tuesday that the fight isn't even close to over.

FARGO -- Fresh from the passage of a funding bill that could pay for the flood diversion, North Dakota's congressional delegation cautioned Diversion Authority officials Tuesday that the fight isn't even close to over.

"We're in a tough competitive environment," said U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. "We hope that Fargo is in line, but I think we need to make clear that there's going to be competition for new starts in public-private partnerships."

She expressed concern about the lawsuit filed by upstream opponents and about the permit from Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. Anything that could threaten a slowdown of the project would be a problem, she said.

U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who convened the Tuesday meeting, has expressed a desire to see everyone work together. He said the Diversion Authority must address upstream residents' concerns whether that's building ring dikes around farmsteads or installing drain tiles to help drain fields faster.

With the lawsuit still in the air -- a federal judge is expected to make a ruling soon -- there hasn't been much incentive for diversion proponents and opponents to cooperate.

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U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who met separately on Tuesday with opponents, said cooperation is necessary because obstacles to the project are much harder to overcome than the Diversion Authority seems to believe.

Congress, on Friday, approved the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2016, which includes $690 million more than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers requested and permission to start six new projects. The bill asked the corps to prioritize projects using a more efficient funding method called public-private partnerships, or P3, but it does not specify which project.

Not so fast

While Hoeven's meeting took place in Fargo, the MnDak Upstream Coalition, one of the opposition groups, met with Peterson in Hickson, N.D., a community on the wet side of a proposed dam.

The dam would reduce the flow of water into the diversion channel and limit the impact to downstream communities. Upstream communities, though, say it will hurt them. The Diversion Authority has been hopeful the permit would not be hard to get because of a mostly supportive environmental impact statement produced by the DNR. Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt told Heitkamp, Hoeven and Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., as much Tuesday.

Peterson said that speaking with Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and with DNR commissioners gave him the impression that getting a permit to build a dam would not be a "slam dunk" and it would take months to complete.

"The permitting is not based on the EIS," he said. "That's a high-hazard dam. And they have not permitted a high-hazard dam for over 30 years. And there's been a number of them proposed."

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Peterson said diversion opponents believe they will be able to tie up the project for years in court.

Though some speculated that Peterson deliberately held a meeting separate from the North Dakota congressional delegation, he said that wasn't the case. He had convened his meeting before Hoeven, whose meeting was timed for after the passage of the omnibus bill.

Plea for unity

The North Dakota congressional delegation, though they've worked to win support for the diversion, have taken pains to portray their effort as a basinwide effort, not just a Fargo-Moorhead project.

Hoeven pointed out that language he got into the omnibus bill also includes funding for flood mitigation and improved flood mapping to ensure high flood insurance rates go away when communities get flood protection.

For Cramer and Heitkamp, the impact of the diversion project is more personal. Cramer is from Kindred, N.D., and Heitkamp from Matador, N.D., both communities in the upstream region that is a hotbed of opposition to the project.

Cramer said that the diversion is difficult for people in the region to swallow because not everyone feels they're on the winning side of the deal. There are emotional issues such as the potential impact to cemeteries, he said.

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There's a lot of lost trust that must be restored, Heitkamp said. "If everybody starts from the premise that we have an obligation for the future of North Dakota and the basin to provide for long-term flood relief for the basin -- there isn't anybody on the Upstream Coalition who disagrees with that. So then the question is how do we get it done in a way that has the least amount of impacts."

She said she has pushed the corps to be flexible with its design and not have a "take it or leave it" approach that would upset upstream residents.

During the meeting, Heitkamp reminded the Diversion Authority of an earlier federal water project in North Dakota that petered out for lack of unity.

"Why don't we have a Garrison Diversion project when we were promised that when we built the dam?" she said. "That's because the state never gelled around one idea and one concept."

That diversion was supposed to bring water from the Missouri River to the Red River Valley after the state agreed to let the Garrison Dam be built. But farmers and environmentalists here mounted an attack and it remains unfinished today.

Related Topics: FARGO-MOORHEAD DIVERSION
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