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Experts: Diversion to have little to no impact on Grand Forks

This is a rendering of the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion's dam inlet structure near Horace, N.D., looking downstream. The inlet controls the flow of water from the dam into the diversion channel to reduce impact on downstream communities. Special to Forum News Service

As the cities of Fargo and Moorhead plan to construct a $2.75 billion flood diversion project roughly 10 years in the making, Grand Forks area leaders say they're supportive, but they're also standing up for their downstream community's interests.

"We're always taking the stance that we need to make sure Grand Forks has permanent flood protection, which we do," said Grand Forks City Council Vice President Ken Vein. "And any downstream impacts—if there should be any—need to be mitigated. We want to make sure we have a process to ensure that happens."

Federal and state experts say that as far as they're aware, the Red River flood diversion will have little to no impact on Greater Grand Forks and most downstream communities.

In the last decade of preparing plans for a Fargo-Moorhead diversion and studying its anticipated impact, Vein said the concern has been around increases in water surface elevations for communities upstream and downstream of the project.

Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority spokesman Rocky Schneider said his project addresses downstream concerns with a dam and control structure that diverts water upstream, or south, into Cass County.

"The project originally didn't have a dam," Schneider said. "It would've basically sent all sorts of water downstream. And so one of the major changes to the project back in 2012 was to include a dam."

Vein was on the governor's task force that studied the FM Diversion about a decade ago.

"I kind of represented downstream interests on that task force," Vein said.

He also was Grand Forks' city engineer until August 2000.

Vein still represents downstream interests years later, most recently having introduced a piece of an amendment the state House Appropriations Committee added to Senate Bill 2020 for funding water projects this session. The House voted to add the amendment Friday morning.

This adjustment would forbid Fargo and Moorhead from conducting any flood risk management operations that could discredit flood protection systems downstream that have been accredited by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The Grand Forks flood protection system is FEMA-accredited.

The bill most likely will end up in conference committee after the House floor votes on it, since the Senate didn't address downstream impacts in its amendment.

In East Grand Forks, City Administrator David Murphy said the city hasn't taken a position on the FM Diversion.

"Our flood protection is built up 6 feet higher than what the '97 flood was. The only concern would be that if the diversion ran some of the water faster through here," Murphy said. "But it really doesn't change where the water's coming from, just the rate. ... We're still in a position here that our flood protection system would be able to handle that."

Cost to Grand Forks

Although ongoing state appropriations talks say the project could take up to $703 million from the state until the 2027-2029 biennium, most federal and state leaders don't anticipate a cost to Grand Forks.

The FM Diversion is a federal project that dates back to 2008, Williams said, when the Army Corps of Engineers spent about three years looking for a solution to Fargo-Moorhead flooding.

Much of the project's approval process has been focused on minimizing impacts up and downstream.

Representatives with FEMA said the impact will be so little to Grand Forks that it most likely won't change the city or Grand Forks County's floodplain status.

"Even if there were any changes—and as far as I know there will be no immediate changes from the Fargo-Moorhead project—but if there were, we'd need to go through the full mapping process and that would be years," said FEMA External Affairs Representative Brian Hvinden.

The last time FEMA re-mapped the city of Grand Forks and Grand Forks County was in 2010, a few years after the city finished constructing its flood protection system. The process generally takes five to 10 years, Hvinden said.

FEMA is not a permitting agency, but it has been involved in the development of the FM Diversion plans, according to Senior Risk Analyst and Hydraulic Engineer David Sutley with FEMA.

Sutley said FEMA reviewed the project to make sure it won't cause any significant upstream or downstream impacts.

"The National Flood insurance program requires insurance for federally backed mortgages for those structures that fall within the special flood hazard area, on your current effective flood map," he said. "And the Fargo Moorhead Diversion program is not changing any of the current effective floodplain maps in Grand Forks."

The difference

According to Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, the FM-Diversion project is positioned the "best it's ever been."

"We have a plan, we have a permit from Minnesota, we have federal funding increased to $300 million more, we've got Minnesota's commitment to their $86 million they have to put in the pot on this," Mahoney said. "Everything seems to be moving in a forward direction; we just need help from the state of North Dakota."

Vein said all of this took about a decade to accomplish, whereas the Grand Forks flood protection system—from planning to the finished product—came in approximately 10 years.

"Our project was done in probably what I would call lightening speed. Within 18 months of the flood, we had done a full environmental impact statement," Vein said. "We had Congress both authorize and appropriate our project, and I think that was in part because of the massive devastation and heroic things done by our congressional delegation at the time."

The Grand Forks protection system, consisting mostly of levees, is different than Fargo's large diversion system.

"By using a diversion, you're taking the water around the city," Vein said. "And then there is a certain amount with (Fargo's) project that would impact upstream, where they're holding some water back and raising the levels more than a tenth of a foot. Their system and the impacts of the system are way different than what ours were."

To Schneider, the Fargo project is different because it's more developed.

"The modeling done on this project is far greater and more sophisticated than the modeling done on the Grand Forks project," he said. "One, it's newer technology, (and) two, we've spent 10 years and $50 million studying the river."

Emily Allen

Allen joined the Grand Forks Herald to cover local government and politics May 2018. Call her at 701-780-1102, email her at eallen@gfherald.com or follow her on Twitter, @Emily_theHerald.

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