The U.S. Senate on Wednesday approved a water bill that includes authorization for a Red River flood diversion channel, the significance of which is being debated much like the project itself.
The nearly $2 billion proposal to move water around Fargo is part of the 2013 Water Resources Development Act, which now moves onto the U.S. House for consideration. Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Flood Diversion Board, said the Senate vote should provide momentum for the project.
"Each milestone means there's one less in front of us," Vanyo. "We're hopeful that authorization will happen in the House and then of course we will be working on appropriation."
Nathan Berseth, a spokesman for the MnDak Upstream Coalition, a group of residents opposed to the current diversion plan, called the Senate passage "a no-news event" and predicted tougher times for project supporters in the House.
"On top of that, authorization is one thing, funding is another," Berseth said. "They can throw around authorizations like party favors."
Authorization would allow construction to begin, but the federal funding would need to be appropriated each year to cover the construction costs, which would be shared by local, state and federal governments.
North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven called Wednesday's action "a big step toward the construction phase of the project," which he said will protect a quarter of a million people in North Dakota and Minnesota.
"We need to maintain our momentum and move it ahead," Hoeven said. "We need to put the cost and hardship of annual flood fights behind us."
Vanyo plans a trip to Washington next week to gauge the House's attitude on the project and talk to lawmakers who handle funding. He'll be joined by Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral and Cass County Administrator Keith Berndt, among others.
"We're hoping at least by the end of the year the House will address and pass something," Vanyo said. "But we're going to go to D.C. and get it straight from them."
Proponents say the 36-mile diversion is needed to protect Fargo-area residents, who have dealt with major flood threats in four of the last five years, starting with a record crest in 2009. This year's flood never materialized, but it cost Fargo $2.5 million for protection measures ordered after the National Weather Service warned of record high water.
The diversion has drawn strong opposition from upstream farmers, homeowners and businesses, who don't like the idea of a staging area that would be needed to hold water in times of serious flooding.
The water bill also authorizes a program to monitor soil moisture and snowpack in the Missouri River Basin to reduce flooding, and prohibits the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from charging users in North Dakota for accessing surplus water from Missouri reservoirs.
Page 2 of 2 - "This legislation is so important for communities throughout North Dakota and across the country," Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said.