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Projects bill will authorize F-M diversion

WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to finally allow a Red River diversion project to go ahead. Now all it will have to do is pay for it.

House and Senate negotiators are spending the last weeks before Congress’ Christmas break trying to thrash out a compromise on dueling water projects bills, both of which authorize about $800 million in federal funding for the diversion. Supporters have sought the diversion to relieve flooding in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., area, which has endured flood threats in four out of the last five years.

But authorization is only half the equation. After it passes a unified water projects bill, Congress will have to pass separate legislation that funds the diversion.

“It’s very important that it’s been included in both versions,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. “We’ll have to work on funding it.”

Hoeven and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said they were optimistic the diversion would eventually receive funding.

“I think (the water projects bill) will come and then we’ll be unified and try and get the funding,” Heitkamp said.

For now, congressional authorization is not quite a done deal.

Because the House, which passed its bill in October, approved a different bill than the Senate, which passed its version in May, the water projects legislation is the subject of a House-Senate negotiating committee. Unlike another key piece of legislation for North Dakota being negotiated between the House and the Senate — the farm bill — the water projects bill is much less contentious and less political.

The committee dealing with the water projects bill met for the first time just before Congress’ Thanksgiving break. The panel will try and blend a House bill that costs about $8 billion overall with a Senate bill that comes in at $12 billion, according to estimates from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Lawmakers say they expect a smooth process. Congress could act this year if negotiations move quickly enough, but authorization by early 2014 seems more likely.

“The important thing is that we all care about reform,” said Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Schuster’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she thought they could produce a strong, bipartisan bill.

The effects of a water projects bill would not be as widespread for North Dakota as the farm bill. But the potential injection of federal dollars for the diversion would be significant.

The federal government has already paid for about $33 million in engineering and design studies for the diversion. Authorization will allow actual construction of the overall $2 billion diversion to begin.

Supporters, including each member of North Dakota’s congressional delegation, have pushed for the 36-mile diversion to protect the Fargo-Moorhead area. Last year, Fargo spent nearly $3 million on flood protections.

A group of mostly rural residents, including farmers and homeowners who live upstream, have opposed the diversion because they fear disruption to their communities.

Other elements of the larger water bill could affect North Dakota in the future.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill include language that would quicken the environmental review process for projects being considered by the Army Corps of Engineers. That could speed the pace of future water projects in the state.