A Minnesota watershed district on the wrong side of a proposed flood control dam has walked away from the board that oversees the $2 billion project.
The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District voted overwhelmingly last week to cut ties with a massive Army Corps of Engineers project that would protect Fargo from flooding by sending some of that water spilling into its watershed, farms and fields instead.
Unwilling to participate in a project where Fargo's gain could be their loss, the Buffalo-Red board voted 6-1 to reject a new joint powers agreement with the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority, effectively cutting ties with the project and its governing board.
"We're caught in the middle," said Gerald Van Amburg, chairman of the Buffalo-Red board and the lone vote in favor of remaining on the diversion authority panel.
For some of his fellow board members, he said, signing off on the joint powers agreement would be like approving the project itself — like volunteering to be flooded so Fargo could stay dry. But Van Amberg, no fan of the diversion plan himself, worried that the watershed has lost its voice in any future decisionmaking.
"We will be on the outside looking in," he said. But many on the board felt "we were never, ever going to be able to agree as a board on some things that were called for," he said. "Others, I think, voted against it because they disliked the project."
Diversion supporters are pushing ahead with the project, with or without the Buffalo-Red. Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo said the watershed's seat on the nine-member board will pass to another Minnesota entity, either from neighboring Moorhead or Clay County.
The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion would carve a 36-mile channel west of Fargo to steer floodwaters from the north-flowing Red River up and around Fargo and on into Canada. A retention dam across the Red River of the North would push floodwater away from the bustling urban center and up onto the pancake-flat prairie to the south; flooding lands in North Dakota and Minnesota that currently sit above the flood plain.
The project, which benefits North Dakota far more than Minnesota, has been an ongoing source of tension between the two states. Minnesota is expected to shoulder $100 million of the cost of the $2.1 billion diversion — compared with North Dakota's estimated tab of more than $1.2 billion.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wrapped up a lengthy environmental review this month that cited "serious concerns" about the diversion and its effect on this state. The agency has not yet signed off on the permits that would be necessary to dam the Red and allow the project to proceed.
Vanyo said critics of the project are overestimating the risks and overlooking the thousands of homes and businesses the project could protect, on both sides of the river.
"We all know that there's greater benefit to North Dakota [than Minnesota]. That's without question. Therein lies the rub," Vanyo said. Diversion-related flooding events would be "few and far between," he said, and landowners would be compensated after those floods. In return, he said, 800 homes around Moorhead and more than 20,000 homes around Fargo would be taken out of the 100-year flood plain.
The corps will break ground on the first phase of construction, a $5 million inlet structure that will sit on the southern end of the diversion trench around Fargo. The project will continue piecemeal after that, as funding becomes available.
The project has been dogged by conflict and lawsuits.
At one point, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton traveled to the banks of the Red River to warn North Dakota to stop "kick[ing] sand in the face of Minnesota" by pushing ahead with diversion-related construction before the environmental review was complete.
The Minnesota DNR wrapped up public comment on its environmental impact study last week. The agency moves next to the permitting process, which could determine whether the dam across the Red — a key part of the diversion — will be built.
The DNR study is available for public review at http://tinyurl.com/ Red-watershed.