Fargo-Moorhead officials have a big decision to make. The Army Corps of Engineers is offering six options for a flood diversion channel for the Red River. The decision they make will cost hundreds of millions of dollars and affect the community for decades.
The Corps says the six options on the table meet federal cost-benefit standards.
The channels would be about 30 feet deep and about 300 feet wide at the bottom.
The least expensive is a 25-mile ditch to divert part of the river around Moorhead, Minn., during a flood, at a cost of $900 million. The most expensive option -- at $1.3 billion -- is a 36-mile channel that would divert water around Fargo, on the North Dakota side of the river.
Corps Project Manager Craig Evans says the Minnesota diversions are the best bang for the buck.
"The Minnesota plans are more efficient, they're more cost effective, and probably more implementable," said Evans.
But the choice isn't that simple. The local leaders favor the North Dakota diversion because it protects a larger area. But it's also more expensive and has greater environmental impact.
“If the local communities want something different ... then we expect you will pick up the tab for that.”Craig Evans, Army Corps of Engineers
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland says local leaders wanted choices. Now they must determine how much flood protection they can afford.
"I think the Corps gave us some possibilities of things to do. But once we come to a decision on where and how it's going to happen, I think the bigger question is going to be where the dollars come from. How do we get the local share paid for is going to be the key," said Voxland.
The local cost will depend on which project is chosen. The federal government will pay 65 percent of the most cost-effective plan. That's about $500 million for the cheapest diversion.
But local officials say that plan won't provide enough protection, and they favor a larger, more expensive plan. The Corps' Craig Evans told local officials that means they will pay a larger share of the cost.
"The Corps of Engineers' ... role is to make sure the federal government is making the best investment of federal dollars," said Evans. "If the local communities want something different because it's better for the local communities, then we expect you will pick up the tab for that."
There's also the question of how the cost will be split between Minnesota and North Dakota. The Corps analysis says North Dakota gets 90 percent of the benefit from any diversion. Does that mean North Dakota should pay 90 percent of the local share?
Minnesota State Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, says he's confident Minnesota will pay up to $100 million over 10 years. That means North Dakota's share would be up to $600 million.
In North Dakota, state law requires cities to pay half the cost of the local share of federal projects. In Minnesota, the state pays the entire local share.
Fargo voters approved a half-cent sales tax for flood control. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says that's just the beginning.
"If we extend our sales tax to 40 years that's going to be beneficial. If we have special assessments, that's beneficial. All of those issues have to come on the table," said Walaker.
Another issue that's on table is whether to slow the flow of the Red River. Dams and wetlands to hold spring runoff could lower the flood levels, but those water retention projects are contentious with environmentalists and farmers.
U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who represents Minnesota's 7th congressional District, says those projects must be part of the solution.
"People need to back off some of their ideology. There's going to have to be give and take. We can't have it all one way or another," said Peterson. "We're going to have to have some onstream storage, some storage on farmland. Some combination of that, where everybody has to give a little bit."
Peterson says he'll push for more retention dams on Red River tributaries. But he doesn't want that discussion to get in the way of a fast track for the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion.
Fargo-Moorhead officials have until April 15 to choose a plan.
The earliest construction could begin is the spring of 2012, and building the massive ditch is expected to take six to eight years.