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House votes to authorize Fargo-Moorhead Diversion

WASHINGTON -- With full congressional approval in sight, the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion's real battle can soon begin: for federal money.

The U.S. House on Wednesday authorized the proposed $1.8 billion flood protection project, joining the Senate in approving the diversion and a handful of other water infrastructure projects across the nation.

Differences between the two bills will still have to be ironed out in a conference committee before it's re-passed and signed into xlaw.

The area's congressional representatives and diversion leaders celebrated passage of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act in the House as an important step for the project, but they acknowledged the daunting task of securing the nearly $810 million federal share.

"That will be the next challenge," said Rep. Collin Peterson, the Minnesota Democrat whose district includes Moorhead and much of northwestern Minnesota.

On a bill that sailed through the House on a 417-3 vote, Peterson was one of the no votes on the bulk package of $8.2 billion in water projects. Peterson said he voted against the bill largely due to changes that negatively affected a flood control project in Roseau, Minn., but said he is still concerned about the project's impacts on Minnesota communities south of Moorhead.

Peterson said diversion leaders' efforts to secure funding may be complicated by the presence of a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency planning the diversion. A group of diversion opponents filed a complaint against the corps in August, accusing the agency of unnecessarily expanding the scope of the flood protection project to protect land closer to the Fargo area for future development -- at the cost of communities upstream.

"It's going to be hard enough to get this money appropriated if everyone is working together," Peterson said. "If you have opposition and lawsuits, it's going to make it significantly harder."

Nathan Berseth, part of the group behind that lawsuit, said he wasn't surprised the House voted to authorize the project Wednesday.

"Authorization is one thing. Funding is another," he said. "Authorization is like asking your mother if she loves you."

'We'll get there'

Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said the key to getting federal funds for the diversion is being included in President Barack Obama's budget outline. Because Obama has already rolled out his budget for 2014, Cramer said federal appropriations likely wouldn't begin until the 2015 fiscal year at the earliest.

Cramer said he and other members of the North Dakota delegation have already started working to that end.

"I don't want to say we've harassed them, but we've been encouraging them to get this in their budget," he said. "I'm optimistic that we'll get there eventually."

If the project secures any funding, it wouldn't come in a single, $810 million check. Cramer said it would have to be parceled out, likely over the course of eight to 10 years.

Before the project is officially authorized, some large differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill need to be reconciled. Namely, the House bill de-authorizes more than $12 million in old, stagnant corps projects.

Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo said he feels better about the project's fiscal chances than he did a year ago, and Wednesday's news only bolstered his hopes.

"The fact that if they do pass something ... that's an indication that the corps and congressional folks do feel that it's a high-priority project," Vanyo said.