A new, compromise plan to manage high waters on the Red River may be a critical step toward resolving a heated fight between North Dakota and Minnesota over where to store destructive floodwaters.
The so-called Plan B would reduce the highest water levels that have put Fargo-Moorhead at risk for years, but not eliminate them altogether. And, in a critical change for Minnesota, it would also reduce the total amount of upstream land that would be inundated in order to protect Fargo, providing a more equitable distribution of the flooded land between the two states, Minnesota officials said Monday.
The latest proposal would replace a bitterly contested flood control plan created by Fargo and other local officials in North Dakota and the Army Corps of Engineers, which was halted by a federal judge last year after Minnesota objected.
"The approach helps ... find a balance between providing flood protection and the associated impacts," said Del Rae Williams, mayor of Moorhead and chair of the diversion board overseeing the project.
Tom Landwehr, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said Monday that the new plan addresses many of the concerns the state had with the earlier proposal. During the type of flood that occurs once a century, some 33,500 acres of Minnesota land would be underwater, compared to 90,000 in North Dakota.
In a flood, "we are always moving water around. There is no way to benefit Fargo without having an impact someplace else," said Landwehr, whose agency released an environmental study of the new plan on Monday.
Compared to the previous proposal, the new plan, which has been submitted to Minnesota officials for a permit by the Flood Diversion Board of Authority, would allow higher river flows during floods, requiring the construction of higher levees in Fargo. But it still calls for a dam upstream from the cities and a 30-mile channel to divert floodwaters around the west side of Fargo.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said the new plan would put some 120 homes at risk during a big flood, and building up the levees will add some $120 million to the overall project cost of $2 billion or more, which would be shared by both states and the federal government.
But, he added, "We will do the things we need to do to move forward on this project."
Some of the upstream communities said Plan B is no better than the first proposal because it does not solve the fundamental unfairness: moving floodwaters from one community to another.
"It comes down to a question of whether or not it's OK ... to push water up on people who are [now] flood free," said Jerry Von Korff, a St. Cloud attorney who represents localities on both sides of the river upstream from Fargo-Moorhead. "Both [plans] do that."
Bruce Albright, administrator of the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District in Barnesville, Minn., told the DNR in a letter that the proposed dam across the Red River could breach at any time and flood the towns of Comstock and Rustad and nearby farms.
Barb Naramore, assistant DNR commissioner, said most of the new flood plain would be on unincorporated land, rather than on areas close to the cities, which is a typical trade-off in flood management plans. Still, she said, the question of fairness is something the DNR continues to evaluate.
The new plan calls for 20 miles of dam and embankment levees on both sides of the Red River upstream from the cities. During a flood, it would divert portions of the Red, Wild Rice, Sheyenne and Maple rivers around the urban areas.
If constructed, it would mean that instead of reaching a flood peak level of 41.5 feet at Fargo, the highest level reached in 2009, the river would top out at 37 feet in town. The plan would also reduce the amount of flooded land by a total of 8,000 acres.
The Red has flooded 51 of the past 113 years, causing millions of dollars in damage to homes and businesses around Fargo and the region. Across the river, Moorhead sits 4 feet higher and is protected by $130 million worth of walls, dikes and levees that Minnesota has put in place over the years.
After the 2009 flood, local North Dakota governments asked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to come up with a long-term plan.
Its original plan would have carved a 36-mile ditch around Fargo and built flood control dams across the Wild Rice and Red rivers. In the event of a flood, water from the Red and its five tributaries would be diverted away from Fargo — the region's bustling economic hub — and into miles of North Dakota and Minnesota farmland and prairie.
Citing inequitable impacts, Minnesota officials refused to provide a permit for the dam. North Dakota and Army Corps. officials proceeded with construction anyway, saying they didn't need Minnesota's permission. Then last year, U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim sided with Minnesota and halted the project. The case is still pending.
Landwehr said the new plan requires more analysis, and the agency has not decided whether to grant a permit for the dam. The draft environmental impact statement released Monday is entirely separate from the DNR's final decision, he said.
"I want to emphasize that Minnesota continues to support enhanced flood risk management for the developed portion of the Fargo-Moorhead area that can meet Minnesota state standards," Landwehr said.
The DNR is expected to complete its review by the winter of 2018 and decide on the permit after that. There will be a public hearing on the project on Sept. 13 in Moorhead.