$1.8 billion diversion channel, endorsed by Army Corps, now must navigate Congress and landowner opposition.
A proposal to build a $1.8 billion flood diversion channel around Fargo -- the latest in nearly seven decades of flood studies -- moved a key step forward Tuesday with the endorsement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' acting chief.
The signature by Maj. Gen. Merdith W.B. Temple puts the project's future in the hands of Congress, which will decide whether to approve the design and, more significantly, whether to pay for it.
"This is a day we've been waiting for for some time," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said. "It does improve our prospects of getting a project -- no question. Is it over yet? No. Absolutely not. But I'm a little more optimistic."
Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., called the approval "a critical step." Congressional delegations from Minnesota and North Dakota, representing both parties, have urged President Obama to include $30 million in his 2013 budget to support the project, Berg indicated. The project could take several years to design and as long as a decade to build.
"There's definitely urgency out there," said Aaron Snyder, project management supervisor for the Army Corps. "We're in a wetter cycle; they've been having flooding annually or almost annually. The sooner we can get this project in, the sooner they get the protection they need."
36 miles long, 35 feet deep
The diversion would be essentially a man-made, 36-mile-long auxiliary river, as deep as 35 feet, with a bank-to-bank width of just under half a mile. In a heavy flood, it could carry as much as 20,000 cubic feet per second of water, which was the median flow of the Mississippi River at St. Paul for 2010. The diversion would reduce the level of the Red River through Fargo and Moorhead during a once-per-100-years flood from more than 42 feet to 30. The record flood of 2009 peaked at 40.84 feet.
The design approved Tuesday was three years in the making. Key features would be a dam upstream of Fargo and Moorhead that would inundate more than 50 square miles of land during floods and force buyouts of residents in three North Dakota communities. That was developed after the corps determined that previous plans, which did not hold water back, would have affected many more homeowners downstream.
DNR still gets a say
Despite Tuesday's federal action, the plan also faces a review by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources because the dam is considered a "high hazard dam" upstream of a populated area. There are about 40 such dams in Minnesota, said Randall Doneen, an environmental review planning director with the DNR. The agency will also probe whether the Army Corps adequately studied alternatives and possible changes the diversion might bring about in the structure of the Red River.
The upstream dam has generated significant opposition to the proposal. Landowners argue that the water held back there would take more than 80 square miles of prime farmland out of production during floods, erode tax bases of local school districts and destroy communities to encourage development primarily in Fargo.
Craig Hertsgaard, who farms near Kindred, N.D., said many believe the Army Corps rushed the current plan and did not fully explore options for diverting floodwater in smaller pockets scattered throughout the Red River Valley.
"We're all united in the fact that there should be flood protection for Fargo and Moorhead," said Leah Rogne, a professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. "But this is a very complicated, very expensive, very risky plan."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646