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Officials receive news about flood diversion

Fargo-Moorhead area leaders hoping to solve the metro's flood protection woes received some good news Monday as U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials said two Red River diversion plans in North Dakota may be eligible for federal funds.

That brings to six the number of diversion plans for Minnesota and North Dakota that qualify for federal dollars.

But leaders also learned it's a choice with a staggering price difference between options and potentially severe side effects for neighbors downstream.

The local costs of the diversions range from $305 million for the smallest Minnesota plan, to $719 million and $783 million, respectively, for the North Dakota plans, which have generated the most support from local governing bodies.

Downstream neighbors -- particularly Minnesota cities north of the Fargo-Moorhead area -- also discovered some unwelcome news.

In a 100-year flood, Fargo-Moorhead diversions could raise water levels from 3.7 inches at Halstad to 10.4 inches near Hendrum.

Environmental concerns in crossing tributaries of the Red in North Dakota could also end up as a deal breaker, officials warn, though talks are ongoing in that area.

There are other twists.

The smallest Minnesota diversion, an $871 million project that slides 20,000 cubic feet of water per second around the metro, is on track to be the national economic development model -- the best deal for the nation.

But it's also the project local officials say is not satisfactory because of the relatively weak protection it offers in a 500-year flood, leaving $22.7 million in damages annually.

"You can see why we're not enthused," Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., said.

Corps officials are pushing to have a $1.1 billion 35,000 cubic feet-per-second diversion in Minnesota declared the national economic development model instead, increasing federal dollars and protection.

Meanwhile, the clock is running. A locally preferred project must be picked by April 15 to keep it on track for inclusion in Congress' water bill this December.

After the hurry up, comes the wait. Construction would start in 2012 and finish in six to eight years, depending on whether it was built in Minnesota or North Dakota.

Local officials want to have a decision on a project in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, conditions are ripe for a major flood this spring, with a 10 percent chance of rivaling last year's record 40.84 feet.

Speaking for residents tired of sandbagging and worrying, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says leaders must agree on a project.

"We don't want to go through 2009 again," he said.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.