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Governors talk of flood diversion

FARGO — North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple has encouraged Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to hear directly from local officials in his state about their position on the proposed Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion.

Dalrymple spoke with Dayton last week after a recent statement issued by the Minnesota governor’s spokesman, who said Dayton and his administration would “do everything to ensure that Minnesota’s best interests are not trampled” by the diversion project.

That statement prompted Dalrymple to call his fellow governor early last week with a suggestion for Dayton and his administration, Dalrymple press aide Jody Link said.

“He encouraged them to speak to leaders in Moorhead and Clay County and hearing specifically from them about whether there is a need for this project,” she said. “He wants them to hear directly from the local leaders.”

Matt Swenson, Dayton’s press secretary, confirmed that the two governors spoke on the phone and will stay in communication.

“It was a very productive conversation, and they’ll continue to have those,” Swenson said. “Certainly the governor will be in touch with local folks. I know he plans to go to Moorhead soon,” but is not sure a visit has been scheduled.

The city of Moorhead and Minnesota’s Clay County are members of the Diversion Authority, which is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to build the $1.8 billion project, authorized by Congress.

The flood control project would include a 36-mile diversion channel and “upstream staging area” that would temporarily store water when the Red River reaches significant flood stages.

Wilkin County in Minnesota and Richland County in North Dakota, both upstream of the diversion, have joined in a lawsuit to try to block the diversion’s upstream retention feature, which would temporarily hold water over an area of 32,500 acres when the Red River levels are 35 feet or higher.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is conducting an environmental review of the diversion project that is expected next spring, is trying to join the lawsuit filed by the upstream opponents.

The DNR took that action after the Diversion Authority began construction several weeks ago on a ring dike to protect Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke subdivision, all on the North Dakota side.

The DNR had asked the Diversion Authority not to build the project until it completes its review, but diversion leaders decided to go ahead with the ring dike, saying the communities need protection from severe floods regardless of whether the diversion is built.

In tandem with the diversion channel, the cities of Fargo and Moorhead also are building levees to protect the cities against the 100-year flood level and to allow significant water to pass through in tandem with the diversion to minimize downstream impacts.

Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said city officials are eager to learn the result of the Minnesota DNR environmental review of the flood diversion project. She compared the state’s review to a patient getting a “second opinion” from specialists at the Mayo Clinic.

“Right now we’re just waiting to see what the DNR decision is,” Williams said. If the DNR decision is at odds with the Army Corps of Engineers plan, the corps would have to offer a different flood protection plan to protect Moorhead and other areas, she said.

“The truth is, we are in Minnesota and if our state organization says it’s not the way to go and the Diversion Authority says they’ll go ahead with it, I don’t think we have a choice, we have to pull out if it. That’s my understanding.”

Williams added that she did not want to speculate about what the DNR would decide, and takes her advice from experts. “I have a tendency to hear what the engineers say, not the politicians,” she said. “The rest is just drama.”

Kevin Campbell, a Clay County commissioner and Diversion Authority board member, said all of the engineers who have studied Fargo-Moorhead flood control have determined that a diversion is needed, and that levees — even with significant water retention projects — will not provide adequate protection.

Campbell said he was surprised to see Dayton take a position on the diversion project before the DNR finished its review.

He also pointed out that federal and state leaders had said local governments must take the lead on Fargo-Moorhead flood protection as the metro area began to pursue better flood protection after the record 2009 Red River flood.

After lengthy review, local leaders on both sides of the river came down solidly in support of the diversion, Campbell said.

“I think he was minimizing quite a bit the value of this project to Minnesota,” Campbell said of the statement by Dayton’s spokesman. “The economic impacts to Moorhead would be very severe” if a flood devastated Fargo.

Also, even though Moorhead is close to achieving 100-year flood protection, Fargo officials expect to have that level of protection in about four years.

“Levees can fail,” Campbell said. “What if the levee breaks on the Minnesota side? Then all of a sudden we’re not sitting so pretty.”

Darrell Vanyo, a Cass County commissioner and Diversion Authority board chairman, agreed with Campbell that it’s a positive development that the two governors are talking.

Vanyo agreed with Dalrymple that Dayton should consult with local leaders in Minnesota, and said it also would be a good idea for him to talk to the corps officials in St. Paul to learn more about the project.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to