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TAKING A BACKSEAT? Valley water pipeline facing hurdles amid flood protection push

FARGO Fargo's long quest to boost its drinking water supplies in times of drought might have to take a backseat to the newly urgent goal for better flood protection. The Red River Water Supply Project, which seeks to divert Missouri River water t...

FARGO

Fargo's long quest to boost its drinking water supplies in times of drought might have to take a backseat to the newly urgent goal for better flood protection.

The Red River Water Supply Project, which seeks to divert Missouri River water to the valley, is taking baby steps to move the $660 million project forward pending federal action.

Interior officials have approved the project, but the federal bureaucracy hasn't yet given its ultimate go-ahead, a finding called a record of decision.

The water project must clear a pair of tough hurdles. It must get federal funding and win congressional authorization to use Missouri River water.

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But the most immediate challenge is whether the valley water supply project will get $3 million in state funding to allow planning and preparations for the project to keep going.

The North Dakota State Water Commission has contributed $1 million to help the project advance. The Lake Agassiz Water Authority, comprised of cities including Fargo and Grand Forks as well as rural water systems, is asking the state for another $3 million.

Red River Valley officials have been warned that the list of water projects seeking money is long - and topped by $45 million set aside in this budget cycle for Fargo flood control, with another $30 million pledged for Fargo flood control in the 2011-13 budget.

"I think we're going to be very cautious as to how far we go," State Engineer Dale Frink told Lake Agassiz Water Authority board members last week.

That noncommittal note drew a response from Curt Kreun, a Grand Forks city council member, who noted that Fargo remains the most vulnerable city to both flooding and prolonged drought.

"We don't want to stop this project," Kreun said, after acknowledging flood control poses an urgent need. "It would be very short-sighted on our part and the state as well.

"The issue is this part of the state is a very strong contributor to the whole state," he added.

The problem, Frink replied, is that money for North Dakota water projects fluctuates with the price of oil, since their funding source is tied to a trust fund based on oil revenues.

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The good news: Oil prices have risen significantly in recent weeks. But the water commission still will be cautious before committing to money for water projects, Frink said.

"We're going to defer some projects," he said. "The deferment may be only six months."

Meanwhile, the Lake Agassiz Water Authority is pushing ahead with preparations for the project, which would include construction of a pipeline to deliver water from a canal to Lake Ashtabula on the Sheyenne River north of Valley City.

Contacts are being made with more than 100 landowners, holding 264 parcels of land, along the pipeline route. The water authority is seeking options for rights of way, in the event the project goes ahead and the corridor is needed.

Preparations also include preliminary work toward getting permits for the project, including surveys of historical or cultural artifacts and wetlands.

Those efforts have an estimated budget of $4.2 million - thus the requests for state funding - and project backers want the work to continue even as the long struggle for federal approvals continues.

Doing preliminary work on the water supply project while final federal approvals continue means they could better withstand possible opposition when North Dakota seeks permission to divert Missouri River water, said Dave Koland, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is administering the project.

Also, the pipeline will take three years to build, so the state can't wait for a severe drought to occur to take action, he said.

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"It seems to make sense that we go forward with the permitting work that we're doing," Koland said.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and the Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

Related Topics: SHEYENNE RIVER
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