Minnesota lost its say over part of the budget for a $2 billion flood control project along the Red River.
The Fargo-Moorhead Flood Diversion Authority board voted Thursday to create a separate committee, made up solely of the North Dakota jurisdictions who have paid into this year’s $215 million budget and who will decide, alone, how that money is spent.
The measure passed with the support of the Minnesota members of the diversion authority, who are caught between the project’s timetable and the fact that their home state has not yet approved the project.
The vote is the latest twist in a complex and controversial public works project that aims to protect Fargo from the Red River’s frequent and devastating floods by diverting floodwater onto other communities and farms on both sides of the river.
Last week, a federal judge warned North Dakota not to push ahead with a key part of the diversion project — a ring levee around three North Dakota communities on the wrong side of the dam the project would build across the Red — until the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources completes an environmental impact study in September.
Getting cut out of the vote wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, as far as some Minnesota members of the Diversion Authority were concerned. The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, which shares a vote with Clay County, had balked at approving the Diversion Authority’s budget before the DNR completed its review in September.
“I really don’t take this as a hostile move at all,” said watershed Chairman Gerald Van Amburg, whose board voted last month to only authorize the sliver of the authority’s budget that funded Minnesota’s environmental review. “I think practically, we see that they’ve got to move forward on some of the project areas, they have to spend money to do that. We can’t approve the budget, then…this is a legal way for them to do it.”
Moorhead Council Member Nancy Otto, who sits on the diversion authority board, noted that Minnesotans will still have a full say over policies and procedures for the project. The separate committee will only deal with spending funds raised through North Dakota sales tax revenue.
"I guess I'm OK with it at this point," Otto said of the new voting restrictions.
Moorhead sits four feet higher on the banks of the Red River and has made extensive flood mitigation eforts in recent years. Still, Otto said, the city has a real stake in the flood control project -- not only do many of its residents work in neighboring Fargo, but a major flood could still endanger the city.
The lone dissenting vote came from a representative from West Fargo, a North Dakota community that would also be cut out of the budgeting decisionmaking.
This year’s $215 million budget will likely be used to build levees and buy up land for flood control projects within Fargo, Van Amburg said. The board will be "very, very careful" not to violate the federal injunction against continuing work on the partially-completed ring levee around the towns of Oxbow, Bakke and Hickson, he said.
North Dakota is anxious to get the diversion project going – and not just because the Red River has flooded 49 of the past 111 years. In five years, the federal government will redraw the flood maps for the region. If the diversion project isn’t in place, officials worry that large numbers of homes and businesses will be forced to buy expensive flood insurance.
But opponents of the project – including communities and residents south of town who would take the brunt of Fargo’s diverted floodwater and who have filed suit to stop the project – say there are other flood control measures that would protect Fargo without flooding them.
The current diversion plan: