North Dakota won't get its $1.8 billion Red River flood control project without Minnesota's support, warned Gov. Mark Dayton.
At a pair of community forums along the Red River this week, the governor sounded less than supportive of the sprawling project that would protect flood-prone Fargo by flooding Minnesota and North Dakota farmland instead.
"Anybody that thinks you're going to ram a $2 billion project down another state's throat is just living in another world," said the governor, who met with Minnesota residents in Breckenridge Tuesday and Moorhead Wednesday to discuss the planned Fargo-Moorhead Diversion project.
The governor and state officials are fuming over North Dakota's decision to forge ahead with the project while the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is still in the middle of a detailed environmental impact review. Work crews broke ground in June on a ring levee around three small North Dakota towns that sit in the middle of the proposed floodwater diversion plain.
"If you're going to kick sand in the face of Minnesota," the Fargo Forum quoted Dayton as saying, "it will come back to haunt you."
Dayton and the DNR have fired off a series of terse letters to the nine-member Diversion Authority that governs the project, asking them to halt construction. North Dakota countered that Minnesota has no authority to stop it from tackling a flood control project on its own soil. Dayton, however, saw the move as a slight to Minnesota and its laws. Last week he asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt the project until Minnesota's environmental review is complete.
The meetings drew large crowds. Some were residents whose homes, farms or communities would be in the path of the diverted floodwater. Some were local officials who worried that without the project, the Red River's frequent floods will be a constant and costly issue.
The Red River has flooded in 49 of the past 110 years and floods have caused millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses around Fargo. Across the river, Moorhead sits 4 feet higher on the banks of the Red, protected by a network of flood control projects Minnesota put in place over the years.
Fargo, the region's bustling economic hub, is hemmed in by flood plains and the constant threat of flooding takes its toll on the community's attempts to draw in new development.
Opponents say the diversion project would protect Fargo at its neighbors' expense.
Leah Rogne's family has farmed the high ground in Richland County, N.D., for four generations. Under the current diversion plan, the family homestead is a floodwater staging area. The governor's remarks "meant a lot," she said.
"It was wonderful to see the Wilkin County Courthouse chambers filled to overflowing," said Rogne, adding that the Moorhead meeting the next day drew so many participants there was no room for chairs. "I think people felt for the first time that they really had a voice."
The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion is a massive undertaking, — one of the costliest the U.S. Corps of Engineers is tackling in the country — and it relies on cross-border cooperation and cost-sharing. But Dayton said North Dakota's decision to push ahead with construction without Minnesota's support was a "trigger point" for his administration.
"It's really a shortsighted approach if they think they can just ignore concerns [of] the state of Minnesota and just do what they want to do and get away with it," the governor said, according to a recording of the news conference provided by the Dayton administration.
North Dakota's claim that the levees, which sit in the middle of the future diversion flood staging area, are unrelated to the larger project, is "disrespectful to Minnesota and the concerns of people in this area," Dayton said.
Asked what he heard from audience members at the Breckenridge forum, Dayton said they wanted an alternative flood control plan that would save Fargo without "turning this area into a regional sacrifice."
"We've got to establish a basis of cooperation and a basis of mutual trust and respect," he added. But for North Dakota to "thumb their nose at the state's Department of Natural Resources … is not laying the foundation for any sort of cooperative resolution."
Last week, Dayton formally asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to halt work on the project until Minnesota completes its review. On Tuesday, he also criticized the makeup of the Diversion Authority, saying it is "absolutely unacceptable" that only two of the seats are filled by Minnesotans.
Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo did not return calls or e-mails Wednesday, nor did other board members. But last week, Vanyo fired off a letter to Dayton to "express my surprise at the timing and tone of your letter" to the Corps.
Congress has authorized the money for the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion. But it hasn't come up with the money yet, and Dayton said it's unlikely to do so unless Minnesota is on board with the project.
"I served six years in the U.S. Senate," Dayton said, according to the Forum. "Authorization and appropriation are very different matters."
And without Minnesota's cooperation, Dayton warned, "you're not going to get the money."
Jennifer Brooks • 612-673-4008