DAVENPORT, N.D. — David Germanson’s farm lies in the path of the embankment for the diversion — a 22-mile berm that will snake diagonally across his farmland.
The levee, which will hold back severe Red River floodwaters to enable a controlled release through the diversion, will be 7 feet tall, Germanson has been told, and he won’t be able to farm over it.
The effect will be to fragment his fields and make farming so inefficient and impractical that he wants officials to buy about 400 acres, he said, since the land will no longer be attractive to other farmers to purchase and also can’t be developed.
“When they get done I’ll have five pieces,” he said. “It takes the efficiency out of it.”
Also, he said, most of the land will be on the wet side of the embankment, where water will pool temporarily during extreme floods.
“Once they go through with it, most of it’s going to be on the swamp side,” he said. “I don’t flood from the Red River now. Without the diversion, I’d be in the developable area. Now I can’t build on it.”
Germanson is asking for a buyout of $6.4 million, but the Cass County Joint Water Resource District is offering $440,600.
The two parties are at an impasse, and the Cass County Commission recently authorized the water district to go to court to pursue expedited eminent domain proceedings if negotiations fail to reach an agreement.
So far, officials on behalf of the $2.75 billion diversion project have reached agreements to purchase property rights for about 430 parcels of land, roughly a third of the approximately 1,200 that will be needed, including flowage easements for land that will be temporarily submerged.
But Germanson is among about 50 cases where negotiations so far have failed because the parties are too far apart despite repeated offers and counteroffers — and therefore could be headed to court for resolution.
In Germanson’s case, he’s asking for up to $14,750 per acre, a figure he said one of his neighbors received for the project. The water district is prepared to pay up to $7,500 per acre, but only for the land that will be underneath the embankment.
“It doesn’t even come close,” he said. “They just figure they can squeeze us out.”
At the age of 66, with no children to take over the farm, Germanson would like to sell and retire. A neighbor has been farming the land in recent years.
“Basically, everything I’ve got they’re going to take or they’re going to flood. What do you do with it? You couldn’t even sell it,” he said.
Eric Dodds, a consultant for the Metro Diversion Authority who is coordinating property acquisitions, said officials are dealing with landowners in good faith and following procedures laid out in state law.
“We hope to settle all of these and avoid going to court,” he said.
In Germanson’s case, officials have offered to buy all of his land. “But we haven’t been able to reach agreement on the price. Our appraised value is substantially less than he’s asking for.”
Although not a formal offer, land agents have verbally suggested they'd be willing to pay Germanson more than $5 million for about 385 acres, Dodds said.
Landowners might believe officials aren’t negotiating in earnest, Dodds said, but when appraised values are so far apart it’s hard to reach a settlement.
Payments in the “vast majority” cases exceeded appraised values by 10% or 20%, he said. “We feel like we’ve done our due diligence, we’re following the statutes.”
Land agents have struck agreements with farmers whose land lies in the path of the diversion channel and will cross their fields diagonally, Dodd said. The issue isn’t unique to Germanson, he said.
“I understand it’s going to be an impact,” he said. “Farmers, they’re really good problem-solvers.”
In 2018, diversion officials estimated land costs, including payments for appraisals, would cost about $500 million. To date, $234 million has been spent to acquire land or property rights.
Although payments are approaching half of the estimated amount, and agreements are in hand for about a third of the needed parcels, the estimate will likely prove fairly accurate since the payments for flowage easements are much less than for acquisitions, Dodd said.
Still, he said, “That number is something we’re going to review and update. We’re in a good position,” he said. “We’re tracking on budget. Many of the acquisitions we’ve completed have been full buyouts, some of the most expensive.”
Most acquisitions have been made for the 30-mile diversion channel, as well as land needed for the Red River inlet structure near Horace, N.D., and the Wild Rice River control structure and the first segment of the embankment.
Officials hope to have all acquisitions or property rights for those elements of the project by around the end of the year.
The focus will then shift to securing land rights for the remaining segments of the embankment, the Red River control structure and flowage easements in what is called the upstream staging area south of the embankment, which will include the three gated control structures.
So far, agreements remain elusive for about 50 parcels, including those owned by Germanson, Dodd said.
Germanson said he is prepared to take his dispute to court, if necessary.
“If nothing else, we’ll fight it,” he said. “We’ll have to do whatever it takes. We’re not going to just up and give it to them.”
But he’d prefer to reach an agreement. Negotiations have been sporadic, he said, with the land agents seemingly alternating between receptive and aloof.
“At times it sounds like they’re ready to go for it,” he said, “then they cool off.”