CARRINGTON, N.D. — The Red River Valley is 50 feet of pipe closer to relief from water shortages during times of drought.
Crews laid the first segment of a planned 165-mile underground pipeline on Tuesday, Aug. 3, marking an early step forward for an ambitious endeavor to provide eastern North Dakotans with a backup water supply should the Red River run dry or fail to meet demand.
The proposed $1.22 billion pipeline will transport water from the Missouri River near Washburn, North Dakota, to the Sheyenne River, which meanders through the eastern part of the state and eventually flows into the Red River north of Fargo. Supporters say the project would help meet the supplemental water needs of nearly half of North Dakota’s population, including water consumers in Fargo and Grand Forks, but the pipeline’s completion is years away.
At a well-attended groundbreaking celebration near Carrington, about 40 miles northwest of Jamestown, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said he was "really excited" for the project that will fill a critical need for eastern North Dakota. Mahoney noted that the pipeline is a worthy investment because a repeat of last century's Dust Bowl would cost the region billions of dollars.
Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner said the project is good for all of North Dakota because a reliable water supply will attract businesses, including food processing and fertilizer plants. Wardner, a Dickinson Republican, noted that the western part of the state "has already been taken care of" with drought mitigation projects, and it's time to focus on the east.
"We're going to all be gone, but the generations to come are going to benefit from this project," Wardner said to a crowd of construction workers and politicians. "As I look forward, I believe this is gonna really put North Dakota on the map."
The project struggled to attract funding and attention for many years, but current drought conditions have emphasized the need for a supplemental water source in the Red River Valley. Several speakers noted that the idea for the project originated in the 1940s, and it's miraculous that it is finally coming to fruition after so many false starts and roadblocks.
The state Legislature has committed money to the pipeline each of the last three budget cycles, including its largest appropriation of $50 million this year, said Duane DeKrey, the general manager of project sponsor Garrison Diversion Conservancy District. The state funding for the project comes from taxes on the energy sector, making North Dakota "the only state that can turn oil into water," said Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford.
Thirty-five municipal and rural water services have signed on as customers for the pipeline and will put up a quarter of funding to add to the state’s support.
The project is still more than $1 billion short, but DeKrey said he’s hopeful lawmakers will dedicate a hefty chunk of state money to the pipeline in 2023. The speed of construction will depend on how quickly the project gets funding, but DeKrey estimates it will take 10 years to complete the pipeline.
Wardner said the Legislature will fund the project until it's complete. Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford, echoed her Republican counterpart, saying the project has bipartisan support because it will benefit future generations and help maintain the vibrancy of rural communities.
The Red hasn’t run dry since the 1970s, according to the National Weather Service, but the river is now flowing well below normal summertime levels. DeKrey said the proposed pipeline would be moving water if it were in operation today, noting that it can help both in minor droughts and severe prolonged droughts.
DeKrey and Wardner said they aren't particularly worried about opposition to the pipeline from landowners or other states, noting that since North Dakota is funding the project in house, there's no concern about ending up in federal court.
Attendees at the celebration Tuesday signed the pipe, 6 feet in diameter, with Sharpies before crews lowered it into the ground. After inking his name, Wardner looked to legislative water guru Rep. Jim Schmidt and said "this may be in the history books one day."