A task force will soon release recommendations for saving a stalled Red River diversion project meant to protect Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, from chronic flooding. Here's a look at where the project stands:
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton assembled the task force following a federal judge's decision to shut down the $2.2 billion project until it gets the necessary permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The 16-member group discussed numerous options.
The task force essentially narrowed its recommendations to three options, with the key differences being where to move a high-hazard dam that would hold back water in times of serious flooding. But Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who also chairs the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority, said he expects the final plan to be a hybrid of those options.
"Every one of the options they discussed has ups and downs. Some have more impact, some cost more, some changes get new landowners involved, some affect Horace," Mahoney said. "So we're saying, hey, just give us the best one that meets the objectives."
Those objectives include receiving the DNR permits, maintaining federal funding and lowering the impacts to Richland (North Dakota) and Wilkin (Minnesota) counties, whose residents have sued to stop the project.
The possibility of realigning the dam and holding area would put a greater burden on the town of Horace, on the southwestern edge of the metropolitan area. Kory Peterson, the town's mayor, said he is telling people "not to get too excited" until they see a final proposal, but admits that many residents are worried.
"The citizens I have talked with, the common question I get is, how much more land does Horace need to give up for this project?" Peterson said. "We have talked with the diversion authority and they are aware they could be marching this thing further north than we're comfortable with."
Peterson said two of the three options favored by the task force would be especially devastating for commercial and light industrial development for Horace, but noted that the Minnesota DNR did not sign off on any of them. Another factor, Mahoney said, is that price of land goes up the closer the dam gets to Horace.
The one change that had unanimous approval with the task force was increasing the amount of water to send through the two cities, which would reduce the amount of water stored upstream. That is estimated at about $150 million.
Depending on what happens with the dam alignment, Mahoney said total cost of changes could range between $200 million and $400 million. Others believe that's a low estimate.
Dayton said he would be willing to seek funding for the project. Mahoney said he has talked to Burgum and other North Dakota lawmakers about lowering the costs through bonding or going through the state-owned Bank of North Dakota to decrease interest.
"We will find it somehow," Mahoney said. "The good news is the price of oil is going up."
Voters in Fargo and Cass County in 2016 overwhelmingly approved extending sales taxes through 2084 to help pay for the diversion, but some residents in neighboring West Fargo are leery about the possibility of paying more for changes.
West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern said there's some resentment among residents who already paid for one flood control project, the Sheyenne River diversion, which was finished in 1992. Even so, Mattern said the city is on record as supporting the Fargo-Moorhead project.
"The bottom line is, we know Fargo needs flood protection. I think everybody will tell you that is the ultimate goal and we will support that," Mattern said. "Yes, there have been some bumps in the road. Are we over that? I don't know."
The Fargo-Moorhead area is unique because it sits in a flat lakebed with no topography to help control the river, which flows north into Canada. Residents dealt with major flooding for three straight years, starting in 2009. The first year was the worst, with the Red River hitting a record high-water mark of nearly 41 feet, or 23 feet above flood stage.
Construction began early last year on a control structure with three gates to regulate flows into the diversion channel, considered the first phase of the project. U.S. District Judge John Tunheim, of Minnesota, halted construction in September.
"Failure is not an option," Gov. Dayton said. "We have to come up with a solution that we can all live with."