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Corps commander visits F-M diversion project

FARGO -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' new commander spent several hours inspecting flood-diversion construction sites on Monday, Aug. 22, and, the next day, visiting with local stakeholders.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite talks about the flood diversion project with Minn. Rep. Collin Peterson, N.D. Sen. John Hoeven, Moorhead Mayor Del Rea Williams and Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, August 23, 2016.David Samson / The Forum
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite talks about the flood diversion project with Minn. Rep. Collin Peterson, N.D. Sen. John Hoeven, Moorhead Mayor Del Rea Williams and Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney at Fargo City Hall on Tuesday, August 23, 2016.David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO - The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' new commander spent several hours inspecting flood-diversion construction sites on Monday, Aug. 22, and, the next day, visiting with local stakeholders.

"I'm unbelievably impressed by the collaboration of the team," Lt. Gen. Todd T. Semonite told reporters after the meeting Tuesday, Aug. 23. "I've done some very, very large projects with the Corps of Engineers and many, many times it is hard to get everybody to a given area."

It was the general's first face-to-face meeting with Diversion Authority officials since taking over as chief of engineers three months ago and his gushing was somewhat unusual because of who else was at the table: Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

Peterson is close to upstream project opponents and Dayton, a sympathizer to opponents' cause, said he was there to send a message. "I just wanted to make known to these folks that the governor feels pretty strongly that they should not move ahead until the permitting process is completed," Dayton said.

The corps wants to start construction on the inlet structure on the dam later this year, but Peterson said the permitting process won't be completed until December.

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The discussion that followed, though, suggested both sides are working closer together, as Semonite said, despite differences over the $2.2 billion project.

Upstream needs

The hourlong meeting was a closed-door affair, so what was said and how it was said is not clear to reporters.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said it was needed to discuss strategy and come up with a common message for the press.

That message appeared to be that permanent flood protection is needed for Fargo-Moorhead and that upstream concerns must be addressed.

Peterson seemed somewhat mollified, calling the cooperation between diversion project sponsors and Minnesota regulators "a very positive thing."

"We need permanent flood protection," he said. "Forty percent of my people work in Fargo. So even though Moorhead probably doesn't need this as bad as Fargo does, they're still one community. We gotta figure a way how to get it done."

Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., who has urged project sponsors and upstream opponents to work together better, seemed satisfied that that's happening. "That's one of the things the general talked about. He gets it. To move forward, is not only moving forward and building the project but you also have to work hard with upstream concerns."

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The senator said that includes helping rural communities with tiling to drain wet fields faster, crop insurance in case fields flooded by the dam prevents planting, paying farmers to store water and protecting cemeteries from flood damage.

Talking with opponents

Mahoney, a member of the Diversion Authority board, said the authority is expected to release plans for mitigating the impact of the project later this month. He said the authority is negotiating with opponents in the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority.

"The attorneys are talking now, talking about when does it operate, how does it operate, who gets control when it operates," Mahoney said. "There's a lot of those things."

Jerry Von Korff, a St. Cloud, Minn., attorney who represents the JPA, said in an email that his clients did agree to negotiate, but their opposition to the diversion as designed has not changed.

"What I have been trying to do is to work on issues that we can agree on, in order to build positive energy," he said. "We don't agree on what should be operated, but we should be able to agree that whatever is operated should be operated in the interest of upstream communities, downstream communities and Fargo. This is an example of focusing on agreement points, without inflaming the discussion."

The JPA has filed three lawsuits opposing the diversion: one to stop the project and two to appeal decisions by regulators in North Dakota and Minnesota. None have been resolved.

Hoeven said he knows not everyone will be happy despite the collaboration. "Every project is hard, but this is a very very complicated, complex problem. It's almost impossible to find a way to get everybody to have exactly what everybody needs."

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Corps commitment

For the corps, the collaboration is positive, primarily because it means a project the agency values can move forward.

Semonite said his job is to persuade Congress to put scarce federal dollars where the government will get the best bang for the buck. He's excited by the diversion project, he said, because of the outsized investment by local and state governments - the corps will pay only about a fifth of the $2.2 billion cost - and the innovative use of private contractors to make construction more efficient.

If the federal government were to undertake the project the the traditional way, he said, it'd take 16 years - twice as long as the Diversion Authority now projects - and $400 million more.

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