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F-M diversion task force agrees on some issues, but far apart on others

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum discuss progress made by the diversion task force after the Nov. 1, 2017, meeting in Moorhead. Tu-Uyen Tran / Forum News Service

MOORHEAD, Minn. — A task force seeking consensus on the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion found consensus on a couple of issues at its Wednesday, Nov. 1, meeting even as deep disagreements on other issues continued.

The group agreed on the definition of the 100-year flood plain as a minimum level of protection the project should provide, but it couldn't agree what area ought to be protected.

The group also agreed to form a team of technical experts to vet all the alternatives to replace the Red River diversion designed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that group members couldn't agree on.

"I thought it was a very good day," said Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, one of the task force's two chairmen.

"I would agree with what Gov. Dayton said," said North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, the other chairman. "I thought we had another very productive meeting today. The task force members bring a diverse set of viewpoints but all collaborating towards an end goal."

The 16-member task force includes both diversion supporters and opponents as well as those not directly affiliated with either side. And the viewpoints of the members continue to be far apart in many ways.

While Burgum believes one of the task force's main goals is to avoid making big changes to the $2.2 billion project that would cause it to lose $450 million in federal funding, Clay County Commissioner Jenny Mongeau suggested the entire thing could be redesigned to achieve enough savings to make federal funds unnecessary.

Flood plain agreement

When the task force met previously on Oct. 23, one of the questions raised by task force members opposed to the diversion was whether the 100-year flood plain the corps used is realistic.

The corps uses a flow rate different than the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the 2015 flood plain map, the most recent, which determines the flood insurance rate area residents pay. Fear that rising flood risks will cause FEMA to change the map to require more property owners to pay much higher premiums is one of the drivers behind the diversion project.

David Bascom, a FEMA engineering chief, told task force members that it used data from 1971 for its latest flood plain map, but for the next map it would use Corps data, which includes the record flood of 2009.

This would increase the flow rate for a 100-year flood from 29,300 cubic feet per second to 33,000 cfs.

Burgum said the group was able to reach consensus on 33,000 cfs because FEMA confirmed a project designed to handle that much water would keep homes out of the 100-year flood plain, and engineers confirmed Fargo-Moorhead would still have a chance at fighting a 500-year flood using emergency measures.

Both are key features of the diversion project as designed by the corps.

How much to protect

Several task force members representing areas outside of Fargo-Moorhead wanted the project to protect a smaller area than it does now with a footprint stretching from north of Harwood to south of Horace and including many rural homes.

The underlying concern among them, especially project opponents, is that the diversion would shift floodwater from not just the metro area but areas metro cities hope to eventually develop, on to rural areas that don't now flood.

Curt Johannsen, mayor of Hendrum, Minn., which is downstream of the diversion, wondered if the diversion was designed to protect rural homes as a way to increase the cost-benefit of the project to win approval from the federal government. He said these homes should be moved or bought out if they can't easily be protected from flooding.

Burgum said his understanding is that the route of the diversion channel and the dam wasn't meant to protect rural homes but to save money. The channel went north of Harwood, N.D., he said, because it avoids crossing the Sheyenne River twice.

"Remember, the goal here is not to provide less flood protection for less people. We're trying to solve the upstream and the downstream problems," he said.

Task force members had many alternatives they thought could be explored.

Heidi Durand, a Moorhead City Council member opposed to the diversion project, asked if it is possible to build two diversion channels, one in North Dakota and one in Minnesota, to avoid retaining water behind the dam.

Mark Anderson, treasurer for the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District, said he's pretty sure that would increase the flow of water affecting downstream communities.

Other ideas included drain tiling, storing water on farmland throughout the basin, running more water through Fargo-Moorhead and storing more water within the area protected by the diversion.

The last two were explored by a team of technical experts that formed prior to the task force to hammer out differences between the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority. The DNR shut it down before the team could reach a conclusion, but several task force members wanted to know more about what the team did achieve.

Technical team

With so many ideas out there, Burgum suggested forming another team of technical experts to offer advice to the task force.

Tom Landwehr, who runs the DNR, suggested that, as a way to expedite the process, the team discard alternatives that were unrealistic and focus only on those that had merit.

The DNR, which was represented at the meeting by Landwehr, Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore and a handful of staff members, had a strong presence. As the agency denying a permit for the dam, it was the focus of much discussion.

Attorney Tami Norgard asked DNR officials what kind of project they would allow, but officials couldn't offer a definitive answer even to a direct question of whether a dam was completely out of the question.

Naramore explained that the agency looks at different project components as a package with all the tradeoffs involved so it's difficult to say what can and can't be built. She promised though that DNR staff would work alongside the task force to offer advice.

The task force has agreed to meet again Monday, Nov. 13, in Fargo.