By DAVE KOLPACK
FARGO, N.D. (AP) -- Proponents of a Red River diversion project said Thursday the decision by the U.S. House of Representatives to authorize the channel should provide momentum, but it still needs leadership from congressional delegations in two states to help secure funding.
The House late Wednesday passed a water projects bill that includes plans for the nearly $2 billion diversion around Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., which has battled major flooding in four of the last five years. The Senate passed its version of the bill in May.
Although federal funding for the project remains a question mark, authorization puts the effort "on the downward side of the hill," said Pat Zavoral, the Fargo city administrator who has lobbied for the diversion. He added that pushing a project to elected officials from two states is tricky.
"It was a high hurdle, but we've got one high hurdle to go," he said. "It would be easier if it was just the North Dakota delegation, but it's the Minnesota delegation too, and they're getting pressure all the time."
Authorization technically allows construction to begin, but the federal funding would need to be appropriated each year to cover the construction costs, which would be shared by local, state and federal governments. The federal share would be more than $800 million.
More than $33 million in federal money has already been dedicated toward engineering and design, which can now go toward construction because of the authorization, North Dakota Republican Sen. John Hoeven said. He said the next step is getting money for construction included in the next presidential budget.
Proponents say the 36-mile diversion is needed to protect Fargo-area residents, who last year spent about $3 million on flood protection measures even though the crest wound up lower than expected. The diversion has drawn strong opposition from upstream farmers, homeowners and businesses, who don't like the idea of a staging area that would be needed to hold water in times of serious flooding.
Nathan Berseth, spokesman for a group of upstream residents who have filed a federal lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers over the project, said Thursday he thinks it will be difficult to advance the diversion among the committee of House and Senate members, let alone fund it.
"When you get down to what the House wants and what the Senate wants, it could still be pulled out of conference," Berseth said. "Authorization was not a big surprise. They did it in the dark of night basically. They wanted to slip something through so they could say they did something."
Hoeven and North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp said they believe the diversion will get through the conference committee based on the fact it is included in both the Senate and House versions of the water projects bill, and the bill passed overwhelmingly in the House despite opposition from groups like FreedomWorks, Heritage Action for America and Club for Growth.
"I think we've got a very strong hand there," Hoeven said.
"There's a lot of desire to get this done, a lot of desire to move forward on this project," Heitkamp said. "The authorization is one step, but in tough budgetary times it's critically important the state be pulling in a unified way and try to make that happen."
The senators said they're sympathetic to the complaints from upstream residents. Hoeven, a Senate conferee for the farm bill, said he's pushing for a provision in the that bill that would help those and other rural residents with water retention, water storage and flood protection.
"We are working to address concerns of the upstream groups," Hoeven said.