The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified several possible solutions to the chronic flooding in Fargo-Moorhead.
Three times in the past few decades, the cities have battled against record-high floods on the Red River, creating temporary levees and dikes to keep back the water. Now, local officials must select the permanent plan they want, and are willing to pay for.
The Army Corps of Engineers has identified three options for further study: levees along the Red River, a diversion ditch around Fargo or a diversion ditch around Moorhead.
Any flood control plan that gets federal funding needs to meet a cost-benefit analysis. At this point, the diversion on the Minnesota side of the river is the most cost effective according to preliminary analysis.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said he's very pleased a diversion is on the list.
"I was real concerned that what we would see is the only thing that works is a levee through Moorhead and Fargo, effectively isolating the Red River from our citizens," Voxland said. "So I was glad to see the dikes were gone and diversions work out."
The Corps of Engineers analyzed several diversion plans of different sizes. The smallest one would cost about $1 billion. Corps Project Manager Craig Evans said, had that diversion been in place during the record flood last March, the millions of sandbags and emergency dikes would not have been needed.
Evans said local officials now need to chose which plan they want the Corps to pursue; levees, a North Dakota diversion, or a Minnesota diversion.
"The other question that goes with any of these plans is: what is the level of protection you're after?" Evans said. "With a diversion, how big a diversion do you want? Recognizing that the local groups will have to pay more to get a larger plan than whatever we determine is the optimal federal plan."
Depending on the size of the project, the state and local governments' share of the cost could range from $337 million to more than $650 million.
There's also likely to be opposition to digging a massive ditch through prime farmland.
Local officials don't have a lot of time to work through those issues. The Corps of Engineers said, to keep the project on a fast track for federal funding, they need a decision by January.
Fargo Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney co-chairs a committee that will decide which flood control project to pursue. He said acquiring land for a diversion will be a challenge, but there's a level of support he's not seen in the past.
"I haven't seen as much parochialism where somebody might say I'm going to protect my area or do this," Mahoney said. "I think everybody realizes we have to come up with some type of solution. I think you'd have more of a black eye if you impeded the process. You want to be part of the leadership that takes us forward."
There are still many critical questions the Corps hasn't answered about environmental impacts and how a Fargo-Moorhead diversion might affect communities upstream and downstream along the Red River.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said it's important the the Fargo-Moorhead project fit with regional flood prevention efforts.
"Obviously, the Fargo-Moorhead area in terms of its population and size is critically important to the whole region, the respective states," Pawlenty said. "But we're committed make sure we have a regional approach to these solutions. So this is merely one piece of the puzzle. It's a big piece of the puzzle, but it's only one piece of the puzzle."
It will be an expensive piece of the puzzle, likely to cost Minnesota and North Dakota taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.
A final plan will be selected by January, and then there will be nearly two years of planning before construction begins in 2012.