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This is a rendering of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion's dam inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream. The inlet controls the flow of water from the dam into the diversion channel to reduce impact on downstream communities. Special to Forum News Service

New F-M diversion plan as good or better than alternatives, Minn. regulators say

FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion’s new alignment, dubbed “Plan B,” has made a lot of progress addressing concerns Minnesota regulators raised when they initially denied the project a permit, those regulators said Monday, Aug. 27.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources had been concerned with the amount of land removed from the floodplain and the disproportionate impact on Minnesota, Commissioner Tom Landwehr told reporters in a phone conference.

“The proposed Plan B goes a long way toward addressing the bigger of those issues in particular,” he said.

But Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore added that regulators still have concerns and are working through them with the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The DNR released on Monday a draft environmental review, which is required if the agency is to issue a permit for the project. Landwehr noted the review is just an informational document and it’s the permit that actually decides if Plan B is built.

The review ruled out all other alternatives identified so far, including one proposed by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, two upstream counties that have sued to stop the project. But it also said Plan B still “appears incompatible” with local laws and doesn’t go far enough to mitigate its impact to the environment.

The draft review is now open for public comments until 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27. The DNR has scheduled a public meeting to gather comments at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, at the Courtyard Marriott at 1080 28th Ave. S. in Moorhead.

“The DNR has a methodical approach. It’s designed to make sure we look at every aspect of the issue,” Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams, who chairs the Diversion Authority, said in a news release. “The approach helps improve projects and find a balance between providing flood protection and the associated impacts.”

The Forum contacted Nathan Berseth, spokesman for the Richland-Wilkin JPA, for comment, but he had been on the road and hadn’t had time to study the DNR review.

The Army Corps, which was involved in formulating Plan B, also released its draft environmental review on Monday for public comment.

Controversial dam

The main sticking point for Minnesota regulators has long been a dam that would be built across the Red River upstream or south of Fargo-Moorhead to control water flow into the flood diversion channel, located entirely in North Dakota, and reduce impact on downstream communities.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has complained that Minnesota is affected disproportionately by the dam. Without the diversion channel or dam, 23 percent of the flooding in the project area would be in Minnesota and the rest in North Dakota, according to the DNR review. With the version of the project that regulators rejected in 2016, 40 percent of the flooding would be in Minnesota. Plan B restores the balance, with 27 percent of the flooding in Minnesota.

The corps, taking a national perspective, has maintained that the diversion project as it was before balances costs and benefits the best.

Plan B, which reroutes the dam radically and allows more floodwater on the Red River through Fargo-Moorhead, came out of a task force Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum convened last fall to hammer out a compromise.

Burgum said in a statement Monday that the DNR’s review builds on the task force’s work. “The DNR’s rigorous and thorough analysis of 33 alternatives underscores their commitment to protecting the Fargo-Moorhead area from catastrophic flooding,” he said. “The Plan B alternative is the most viable solution to provide permanent protection for the metro area.”

In a news release, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., also weighed in: “The Red River Valley needs the certainty of permanent, comprehensive flood protection. The revised plan includes important compromises between the states of North Dakota and Minnesota, and we appreciate everyone who came together to move this effort forward.”

Best alternative

Of the alternatives, 29 had been rejected in the environmental review for the previous diversion alignment and the Plan B review rejected them again.

The review also considered three alternatives brought up by task force members and a no-action alternative required under state law.

The first of the three alternatives is an old alignment that ran through Minnesota, which Minnesota officials had ruled out long ago. The DNR review said given the agency’s concern about unequal impact on Minnesota, putting the diversion channel in Minnesota would not be acceptable.

The second alternative, proposed by the Richland-Wilkin JPA, was to move the dam farther north or downstream, closer to Fargo city limits, and change the route of the diversion channel.

JPA officials have long maintained the dam is too far south and is meant to leave more room for Fargo to develop while harming upstream landowners.

The DNR review said this northern alignment “did not have significant environmental benefits over Plan B.”

Naramore said Monday that, in fact, it had a greater impact overall than Plan B, which led the agency to modify it slightly to see if the impact could be reduced.

The review said that modification, which still moves the dam north as the JPA wants but keeps the diversion channel as it is, “had similar environmental benefits as Plan B, but it also had greater socioeconomic impacts than Plan B.” That is, more buildings would be protected by Plan B.

Under Minnesota law, the DNR can conduct an environmental review and consider a permit application at the same time, which is what it’s doing now. But the agency can’t issue a permit until after the review is finalized.

Landwehr said he doesn’t know how long it will take to finalize the review because it depends greatly on how much and what kind of public input it receives. The review can be finalized right away if there’s no input, or it can take much longer if comments trigger a major analysis, he said.

On the web: To read the DNR’s draft review, go to https://bit.ly/2PHPmwL. To read the Army Corps’ draft review, go to https://bit.ly/2MCSQTC.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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