The Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project is on its way to Congress.
Despite some local opposition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officially signed off on the project Tuesday, clearing the way for the project to move ahead. It is designed to provide long-term flood protection for the Fargo, N.D. and Moorhead, Minn., area.
The community has faced major floods the past three years and steadily worsening floods over the past 20 years as a result of an extended wet weather pattern.
The next key step for the nearly $2 billion project is congressional approval and funding.
There are a couple hundred engineers at work designing the 35-mile long flood diversion channel. Design of the first segment is nearly complete. Construction can't start until Congress approves the project.
Fargo-Moorhead officials are pleased with the progress. But each new step brings anxiety for Greg Hanson, who lives about 20 miles south of Fargo-Moorhead on the North Dakota side. His home and furniture refinishing business are high and dry a stones throw from the Red River. For him, spring floods are not a problem.
"There's only two times it flooded here," Hanson said. "Once when it was Lake Agassiz and the other time Noah was probably floating around."
“This Fargo nice and North Dakota nice stuff just doesn't play.”Greg Hanson, of Hickson, N.D.
But if the diversion is built as planned, about 300 homes — including Greg Hanson's — will be removed. This area will be used to store water from 3 feet to 8 feet deep during a flood.
The proposed water storage area includes three small bedroom communities, scattered homes and farms. Local residents have formed an organization to fight the project.
But Hanson said they're in a bureaucratic no man's land. The looming diversion means no one wants to buy their homes, and a government buyout could be years away.
Hanson thinks he and his neighbors are being sacrificed to protect Fargo-Moorhead. "This Fargo nice and North Dakota nice stuff just doesn't play," he said. "And it's been quite arrogant, the way they treat us. They don't ask, they tell. And after awhile I guess you do get a bit cynical."
Hanson and some of his neighbors tried to secede from Cass County. The county board rejected that request.
County Commissioner Darrell Vanyo, who also serves as co-chairman of the Diversion Authority board, said he understands some landowners are frustrated. But he said the project design isn't set in stone and engineers are still studying options that might reduce upstream impact for some people.
Engineers recently modified the first segment of the diversion, north of Fargo, straightening the channel. That change saves an estimated $80 million in project costs. Engineers say they expect many changes from the preliminary plan as final design work proceeds.
"I would hope that gives some sense of hope for people all along the diversion that there can be some tweaks. I'm hoping people will take things as they come rather than jumping to conclusions," Vanyo said.
It's unlikely small changes in the diversion will save many upstream homes, and landowners like Hanson might need to wait at least a year for final design of the diversion segment that affects their homes.
MYRIAD FUNDING SOURCES
The project could receive congressional approval by next fall. That would allow construction to start in 2013.
But federal funding isn't a sure thing. North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad said that in tight budget times, it's going to be a challenge.
Conrad said he's been making the case to his colleagues in Congress that $2 billion is a smart investment. The federal share of the project would be capped at $783 million. Minnesota, North Dakota and local city and county governments would be responsible for the remaining cost.
"If there were, god forbid, a catastrophic failure, the cost would be staggering," Conrad said. "The losses here would be $8 [billion] to $10 billion. That means building a diversion or other permanent flood control works here is very much in the public interest."
Local officials say they've done everything they can to show Congress they're serious about the project. Voters in Fargo and Cass County approved sales tax increases to help fund the local share of the project.
The Minnesota share of the project is still undetermined but likely will be at least $200 million.
Minnesota officials say they will not commit funds to the diversion until it wins federal funding. That's upset some on the North Dakota side who want assurance Minnesota will pay a share of the project's cost.
Vanyo, co-chairman of the Diversion Authority, is confident the project has support in Washington.
"It's one of the Corps' top projects," he said. "And because we do have local funding and because we've continued to advance ourselves, I think it puts us in a good light that we would be one of the top projects they would look at."
Design work continues as local officials wait for congressional approval. Homeowners like Greg Hanson wait to see what will happen to their homes and businesses.