FARGO, N.D. — The mayor of a North Dakota city that has battled major flooding for four of the last five years said Thursday that area residents should be blaming Congress rather than squabbling among themselves about a proposed Red River diversion project.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told fellow members of the Red River Diversion Authority board that he doesn't understand recent complaints by some members of the neighboring city council in Moorhead, Minn., who are upset about spending increases on the design of a project that has not been authorized by Congress. The group originally had a $30 million design budget, but has requested an additional $30 million until the project is approved.
"This attitude that we can't move forward because we can't find money? It's not our problem. It's the federal government's problem and they are as dysfunctional as you can imagine," Walaker told the group of city and county leaders. "I mean that seriously. They can't even get a farm bill.
"People who want both authorization and appropriations at the same time are not looking at this correctly. The first step is authorization and then we get on a list," he said.
The nearly $2 billion flood control project has been authorized by the U.S. Senate, but has yet to go before the House. Authorization would allow construction to begin, but the federal funding would need to be appropriated each year to cover the costs, which would be shared by local, state and federal governments.
With the board scheduled to approve its 2014 budget in September as part of a joint powers agreement between Fargo and Moorhead, members said Thursday it's important to emphasize that Moorhead is not obligated to pay more money for the design and that funding for construction should come from the Minnesota Legislature. They also said this is not the time to back off the project.
"The idea that we shouldn't discuss this before authorization ... the only way to get there is to spend this money," said Darrell Vanyo, board chairman.
Board member Kevin Campbell, a Clay County, Minn., commissioner, said a lot of questions about the project were appropriate, but raised by some newer Moorhead council members who might not be familiar with the process. He said he "doesn't like the message" some are sending that federal funding for the diversion will never materialize.
"All the other projects on the waiting list for the corps are hoping we drop out," Campbell said. "Everything the Corps of Engineers has told us is that we rank high."
Walaker balked at suggestions that diversion backers are not doing enough to explain the project.
"I was told the other day that maybe what you guys need to do is hire a public relations firm. I said we've got three of them," Walaker said. "We seem to be losing sight. We've been put on the defensive and everything is that we are not communicating with the public. We have tried to get the information out."
The Fargo-Moorhead area saw three straight years of major flooding, beginning with a record crest in 2009. After a dry and calm year in 2012, residents were back sandbagging again this year, although initial National Weather Service predictions proved to be several feet higher than the actual peak. Still, Fargo spent more than $2.5 million on temporary dikes.
Among the complaints from representatives of Moorhead — which has fewer residents and sits higher than Fargo — is that the Minnesota city is in a better position to handle high water. Authority board member Nancy Otto, also a Moorhead City Council member, disputed that notion.
"I'm speaking just for me, but I believe there are a number of citizens who recognize we're in this fight together," Otto said. "If Fargo loses the battle, Moorhead loses it, too. That's just the reality."