BLAIN JOHNSON: Time for Fargo to rethink diversion plan

BISMARCK -- As an emergency manager, I try to constantly reevaluate and reprioritize hazard mitigation projects based on the actions local communities have taken since their last disaster.

Blain Johnson

BISMARCK - As an emergency manager, I try to constantly reevaluate and reprioritize hazard mitigation projects based on the actions local communities have taken since their last disaster.

I feel this is crucial for not only emergency managers, but also administrators at any level of government and industry.

The Fargo-Moorhead diversion, which was developed immediately following the record flooding along the Red River in 2009, is a prime example of a hazard mitigation project. And with the recent stopping of the Oxbow, N.D., ring dike by a federal judge in Minnesota, this is a great opportunity for Fargo leaders to reassess the diversion project's cost and strategic value.

It appears West Fargo has weakened in its support of the diversion, judging by the city's recent vote against the special tax assessment that would partially fund the project and by Mayor Rich Mattern's comments afterwards.

Meanwhile, Moorhead does not seem to be able to make up its mind, perhaps because the city is worried about political and fiscal repercussions from its neighbor.


One thing is certain: Moorhead will not see any flooding until the river rises to 41 feet or higher, thanks to tremendous city improvements over the past six years.

Even Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has expressed his displeasure at the timeline and hastiness of the decisions being made by the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers. And the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources also has made its intense displeasure known.

In fact, it appears that the only entity in the area that now is pushing for the project is the city of Fargo.

According to, the Diversion Authority is spending an average of more than $234,000 a day on diversion costs. Why is this gross expenditure being allowed by local leaders?

Imagine the infrastructure and mitigation projects that could have been funded and completed with that money over the past six years. If the city would have spent that much money on diking and construction, flooding would not even cross residents' minds today.

After 2009, every city along the Red made significant flood-protection improvements, appropriately using federal funding and taxpayer dollars to do it. Oxbow already had built a dike system after 2009 which would have protected the city from a similar record flood.

But instead of pointing this out, the Diversion Authority bought out Oxbow's strong opposition to the diversion by offering a new golf course, new clubhouse and additional housing; and cowardly Oxbow leaders took the check and ran.

Now, Oxbow residents are smiling and preparing their golf carts for a new course that Fargo taxpayers bought, while Fargo residents have nothing to show for their money due to the blatant mismanagement of funds. Perhaps Oxbow's new golf course should become a public course or give reduced-price memberships to Fargo residents?


Given recent events and the falling support for the diversion, this as a great time for Fargo to step back, take a breath and reevaluate the value of the $2 billion project.

Look at the great strides area cities have made with flood protection recently. For example, Fargo and Moorhead have built a combined 25 miles of permanent levees since 2009. The network that will protect to the 41-foot level and leave the city of Fargo needing only 4 percent the sandbags that it needed in 1997. (And by the way, river levels of 38 feet or more have happened only three times since the Red reached 39.1 feet in 1897.)

Perhaps the supporters of the project will realize that the city's safety against flooding already is much greater than some would like to admit, and that other forms of mitigation can increase the city's protection without harming other communities and at a much lower cost than the diversion.

The current spending cannot continue and is not sustainable. Fargo should re-focus its efforts on in-town protection and stop wasting taxpayer dollars on an unnecessary project.

With a bit more time and proper spending, Fargo will join Moorhead and West Fargo with protections that exceed the highest crest recorded - and without spending $2 billion.

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