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The politics of protection: State, international borders complicate managing Red River

FARGO When it comes to governing water, many people have a seat at the table. Managing the Red River basin gets even more complicated because it crosses state and international boundaries. "Water is one of the most controversial things you'll eve...

FARGO

When it comes to governing water, many people have a seat at the table.

Managing the Red River basin gets even more complicated because it crosses state and international boundaries.

"Water is one of the most controversial things you'll ever deal with," said North Dakota State Engineer Dale Frink. "A lot of times the easy part is coming up with the money."

Chuck Fritz, director of the International Water Institute through the Tri-College University, said it's a good thing so many bodies have a voice in water projects.

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But that also adds to the complexity, and slows down the process, he said.

"It's difficult because the more people who have a say, the tougher it is to focus in and hone in on one specific thing that you want to do," Fritz said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on flood-control alternatives for the Red River basin while local officials lobby for federal dollars to help pay for future construction.

Options include a 30-mile, $909 million diversion channel through Minnesota and $625 million in levees, incorporating Fargo's proposed $161 million Southside Flood Control Project.

The North Dakota Legislature approved $75 million for the Fargo project.

Minnesota lawmakers set aside $67 million for flood prevention and recovery. It's possible some or all of the money could be unalloted or delayed, but Gov. Tim Pawlenty has supported the initiative.

Fargo residents will vote later this month on a half-cent increase to the city's sales tax to pay for permanent flood protection. The initiative is expected to raise $200 million over 20 years.

When decisions on water projects are made, the list of agencies is long, including groups from international, federal, state and local levels.

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The Red River Basin Commission involves a wide range of stakeholders and aims to link the different levels of government together, said Lance Yohe, executive director.

"We're trying to get people to find ways to cooperate and get things done," Yohe said.

On the local level, North Dakota and Minnesota have slightly different ways of managing water.

North Dakota uses water resource districts, which follow political boundaries.

Minnesota uses watershed districts, which follow geographical boundaries.

The responsibilities of those groups range from granting permits for culverts to funding major projects.

"They do everything from very small things to very big things," Fritz said.

On the federal level, the Army Corps is the main agency involved with water projects - from studying alternatives to playing a role in funding and construction.

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The Environmental Protection Agency is involved with environmental permitting, a complex process if an environmental impact statement is required, Fritz said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency establishes flood plain boundaries and provides disaster response.

North Dakota and Minnesota also fall into different regions for federal agencies, including FEMA, corps and the EPA.

With the corps, North Dakota officials deal with the Omaha office while Minnesota deals with the corps office in St. Paul.

"The river is a border for states, but it's also a border for federal agencies, and it does complicate that," Fritz said.

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

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