The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wants public input on the fate of a $2 billion flood control project along the Red River.
The proposed Fargo-Moorhead Diversion has been a source of tension between the Minnesota and North Dakota sides of the river. The massive project would protect bustling Fargo from the Red’s frequent, costly, spring floods — but at the price of damming the Red River and backing some of that floodwater onto Minnesota lands that are currently high above the flood plain.
But Fargo needs Minnesota’s permission to build that dam. Before the agency makes a decision that could potentially derail the entire project, it is inviting members of the public to spend the next month making suggestions or sharing their own data about planned diversion.
“I think the biggest concern is, by placing this new high-hazard dam, this embankment, we will be flooding lands that have historically not been flooded,” said DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr, who will have the final say on the Red River dam permit in the summer of 2016, once the environmental impact review is complete. “You’ve got the impacts on private property, both cropland and structures. You’ve got impacts on public structures, roads and … cemeteries.”
On Monday, the DNR released a draft of its environmental review of the project, which sums up the project, its alternatives and its potential problems, but makes no recommendations. The public comment period will be open until Oct. 28, and DNR officials will spend the winter responding to comments.
Construction on the diversion project has been idled by court order until Minnesota completes its environmental review. Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo sees the release of the draft report as “positive for us” and is resigned to several months of waiting for the final decision.
“It’s obviously been a long process for us,” said Vanyo, who has clashed with the state in court over whether construction could begin on the North Dakota side of the river while Minnesota completed its review. “We’ve grown accustomed to waiting.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current flood control plan calls for digging a 30-mile trench around Fargo to divert spring floods around the city, while retention structures across the Red and Wild Rice rivers backed even more water away from Fargo and into North Dakota and Minnesota territory to the south. Supporters say the project is an investment that will protect the region’s economic hub from the frequent spring floods on the north-flowing river. Opponents, however, have battled the plan through the courts, calling for alternatives that would spare the farms and communities currently in the diversion’s path.
Diversion supporters have questioned whether Minnesota’s environmental review was even necessary, since the corps did its own environmental study several years ago. The DNR’s survey focused on issues like the project’s effect on local wetlands and stream stability.
“Certainly we understand the [Fargo-Moorhead] Diversion Authority wants to get some answers as soon as possible,” Landwehr said. “I think they understand that the process is what the process is. We don’t want to cause any unnecessary delays so we’re moving as quickly as we can — but we want to do a very thorough job.”