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Area water shortage concerns keep project moving forward

The Red River Valley is plagued by the curse of alternately battling too much and too little water as the climate fluctuates between intense floods and droughts.

Byron Dorgan
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. (Herald file photo)

The Red River Valley is plagued by the curse of alternately battling too much and too little water as the climate fluctuates between intense floods and droughts.

On paper, Fargo-Moorhead is trying to tackle both problems at once.

In the wake of last spring's record flood, plans are taking shape for a possible diversion channel to protect Fargo-Moorhead from flooding that comes with a projected cost in the $1 billion range.

At the same time, the decadeslong quest to divert Missouri River water to the Red River to supplement water supplies in times of prolonged drought continues with plans for a $660 million project requiring construction of a 123-mile pipeline.

That adds up to another too-much problem: sticker shock in Washington, which faces a deluge of red ink from budget deficits.

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Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who heads a key committee involved in funding water projects, is bluntly warning that the Red River Valley shouldn't expect Uncle Sam to pay for both at the same time.

"Those are two very large expenditures and they're not going to be moving simultaneously," Dorgan said.

Dorgan said he could not ask Congress to approve both projects simultaneously, given the massive federal debt and the growing struggle to pay the nation's bills.

"Nor can the federal government fund both at the same time," he said. The total available to fund water projects nationwide is $5 billion a year, the senator added.

Asked whether that means a project to supplement Red River Valley drinking water supplies would be on indefinite hold, or local governments would have to look elsewhere for solutions, Dorgan said:

"It's a bottom up process," in which Dorgan has told local officials they should determine their top water priority, and he will do his best to provide the federal share of funding for that project.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker has heard Dorgan's message about the necessity of identifying the top priority for federal funding.

If forced by Washington to choose, what tops the mayor's water wish list?

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A year ago, North Dakota officials and congressional representatives thought that the Bush administration would bestow its blessing upon a proposed $660 million canal-and-pipeline project to divert Missouri River water.

But the expected approval never came from the Bush administration.

Then came the record 40.82-foot Red River flood crest in March, and the push to secure comprehensive flood control to protect Fargo-Moorhead.

As with the Bush administration, the Obama administration's Office of Management and Budget wants more information about the Red River Valley Water Supply project.

Federal budget officials want more information on the viability of using Minnesota groundwater instead of the "preferred option" chosen by the diversion of Missouri River water.

The use of Minnesota groundwater was investigated and discarded as unfeasible during an exhaustive environmental review, said Dave Koland, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy Project.

"The study was so intensive and so detailed that a lot of this material gets buried deep inside the report," he said, adding that part of the response will be to highlight findings already made.

North Dakota officials concluded that getting the approval to transfer Minnesota groundwater to North Dakota would be a major obstacle.

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Bruce Furness, former Fargo mayor and chairman of the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, the group pushing the Red River Valley Water Supply project, agreed that getting water from Minnesota is an unlikely solution.

"That just would not be workable," Furness said. "They did look at that option," referring to the possibility of tapping Minnesota groundwater, as well as diverting water from Minnesota's Lake of the Woods. Both ideas were rejected.

Still, officials are gathering information to comply with the federal budget officials' questions, Koland said.

The preferred option, involving the transfer of Missouri River water, has the backing of the state of North Dakota, the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

But the federal bureaucracy's final nod of approval -- a finding called a record of decision -- must be signed by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The project would pump water from Lake Audubon, use the McClusky Canal, and build a 123-mile pipeline to deliver water to Lake Ashtabula, north of Valley City, part of the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red River.

The proposal contemplates that the estimated $660 million cost would be equally divided among federal, state and local governments, each paying $220 million.

Despite the slowdown, planning and preparations for the Red River Valley Water Supply project continue. Right-of-way agreements have been secured for almost 70 percent of the pipeline route, Koland said.

Work also is continuing on drafting operating plans for the project, as well as preliminary designs.

Despite Dorgan's warning, Koland believes the administration still should be able to approve the preferred option as a plan, even if funding must wait.

If approval comes next year, the project would face two additional significant hurdles: getting the federal appropriations and congressional authorization to transfer water -- a proposal that has long drawn vehement opposition from Canada, Minnesota and Missouri.

To address those concerns, the project would include a water filtration and treatment plant, which a federal environmental impact statement concluded would prevent the spread of organisms from the Missouri to the Red and ultimately Hudson's Bay.

If the Obama administration gives the OK, construction could start in 2015, Furness said. Koland is pushing the idea that state and local funding could be used to start construction of the $400 million pipeline to Lake Ashtabula.

Springer is a reporter at The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.

Related Topics: RED RIVERFARGONORTH DAKOTA
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