FARGO — North Dakota has approved a plan to mitigate the effects of the metro flood diversion project that includes a special crop insurance program, cemetery mitigation plans and procedures for buying out properties.
The mitigation plan was approved by the Office of the North Dakota State Engineer and still requires approval from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The mitigation plan, which is more than 180 pages, outlines key actions and programs the Metro Diversion Authority is taking to meet federal, state and local requirements to minimize impacts from the project and to compensate property owners.
“This is one of the most important elements for moving this project forward,” said Joel Paulsen, executive director of the Metro Diversion Authority.
Having the mitigation plan approved in North Dakota moves the diversion project a step further toward providing flood protection for the metro area, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said.
“Flooding is a real threat, and this spring we were reminded of the difficulties that can come from reliance on temporary measures and mass gathering of volunteers,” he added. “Having an approved plan to mitigate impacts to affected people is critical to the project moving forward and providing the protection our communities need.”
The plan focuses on mitigation efforts for an area occupying 26,600 acres upstream of the flood project, where a 20-mile earthen embankment with three gated control structures will temporarily store water during extreme floods.
The upstream staging area has sparked intense opposition from Richland County in North Dakota and Wilkin County in Minnesota, which are challenging a permit for the project granted by the Minnesota DNR.
The flood-control project, which also will feature a 30-mile diversion channel that will split flows of the Red River, will operate an average of once every 20 years, engineers estimate. If all goes as planned, the $2.75 billion project will be ready to operate by the spring of 2027.
Several hundred homes, farm outbuildings and other structures are located within the upstream mitigation area, including 60 residences in Cass County, 14 in Clay County and two each in Richland and Wilkin counties.
The mitigation plan spells out procedures to appraise and negotiate purchases if they cannot be protected — or to pursue eminent domain legal action if agreements can’t be reached.
Flowage easements, one-time payments, will compensate landowners for water that flows on their property when the diversion operates.
The biggest impacts will be to properties that are closest to the embankment, which will run south of Fargo-Moorhead, where the water will be the deepest and the duration of flooding will be the longest, Paulsen said.
The deepest pool depth, about 10 feet, will be near the embankment, tapering to a half foot or less in Richland and Wilkin counties, where it’s estimated the water would remain for up to five days, he said.
The Diversion Authority also will help landowners clean up debris deposited by a flood, under an arrangement similar to spring cleanup week that is a tradition in Fargo-Moorhead.
A special self-funded crop insurance program provided by the Diversion Authority would compensate farmers for crop losses in the event of a summer flood — considered “extremely unlikely” by diversion officials.
“There has never been a summer flood in recorded history that would have triggered operation of the project,” which will operate when the Red River reaches 37 feet or more in Fargo-Moorhead, the mitigation plan said. Major flood stage begins at 30 feet; the record 2009 crest was 40.84 feet.
If the diversion is placed in operation during a summer flood, however, funding for the project’s operation and maintenance will pay for the crop damage, estimated to range from $20 million to $25 million, according to the plan.
“We haven’t actually acquired many of the flowage easements,” Paulsen said. “That process is really just getting started right now.”
The flowage easement payments will be based on land value, and will be higher for land closer to the embankment, where the impacts are greatest, he said.
“It’s tough for me to give a number until we go through the appraisal process,” Paulsen said. “They’re going to vary quite a bit.”
So far, the primary effort has been on acquiring properties in the upstream area that have structures that can’t be mitigated or where owners want to sell.
“That’s been more of our focus,” Paulsen said. “Keeping the project on schedule.”
Flowage easements don’t have to be in place until 2026 or 2027, he said.
Operation and maintenance funding will come from a levy of properties within a benefit district in North Dakota and, in the city of Moorhead, from a storm drainage monthly fee. Diversion officials estimate it will cost $5 million to $10 million per year to operate and maintain the project.
Agricultural properties deemed to benefit 100% from the diversion will be assessed $4 per acre per year. The assessment drops to $2 per acre per year for farmland that benefits 50%.
An estimate in 2011 using $3 million to $5 million as the annual operating budget, predicted monthly assessments for a $200,000 home would be up to $40.
The estimate is subject to costs still being determined, but Fargo property owners will bear the “lion’s share” of paying for the project’s operations and maintenance, since they will benefit most from the diversion, Paulsen said.
Any sales taxes for the diversion project collected in Fargo and Cass County that exceed the amount needed to pay the project’s capital costs could help to defray operation and maintenance costs, Paulsen said.
The cost of flood insurance, which likely would become mandatory for thousands of property owners without the diversion, would be greater than the assessment, he said. Local officials estimate annual flood insurance premiums for an average home in south Fargo could range from $3,000 to $5,000, with the metro area paying $30 million to $60 million annually.
A ring dike is being built to protect the communities of Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke in the upstream area. The dike has been half constructed, but work on the other half can’t proceed until a federal judge allows it, Paulsen said.
Five cemeteries in the upstream area south of Fargo-Moorhead will require protection. The likely method will be to add several feet of dirt over the graves, locating each headstone with GPS coordinates, he said.
The Diversion Authority also will assume responsibility for clearing the cemeteries of any debris after a flood caused by the project.
“That would really go in perpetuity,” Paulsen said.