Downstream towns worried about Red River diversion


Residents living downstream from Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., along the Red River fear their towns would be sacrificed in a diversion plan to save the two larger cities from chronic flooding. Backers of the plan say it's too early to panic.

City and county leaders are under pressure to submit a flood control plan to the Army Corps of Engineers by the end of the year or risk delaying the project.

A committee of Fargo-Moorhead officials decided last week that the best option is to divert water from the north-flowing river either east or west of the cities.

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Western Minnesota residents near the river worry that the larger cities are rushing into a diversion without considering the impact downstream.

"Georgetown would pretty much be wiped out if the diversion goes through, unless they're going to do something else," said Traci Goble, the mayor of Georgetown, Minn., She described her community as the "dumping point" for the Buffalo River and Red River.

"The diversion would kill us," said Ann Manley, the mayor of Perley, Minn., within a mile of the Red River. "All they're doing is pushing the water around, and we're right in line to get it."

Jeff Volk, an engineer working on flood control, said preliminary studies have shown the added flow to downstream communities from a diversion project would be measured in inches, not feet. He also said diverting the water would accelerate other such flood control methods as dikes and dams.

"Georgetown would pretty much be wiped out if the diversion goes through."

"It's premature to guess the actual impacts," Volk said. "But I think it's safe to say that the fear of downstream destruction is not accurate."

Rural residents aren't so trusting.

Commissioners in Norman County, Minn., have approved a resolution asking the corps to complete a downstream study "as soon as possible."

Diane Ista, a manager with the Wild Rice Watershed District that includes the Minnesota towns of Ada, Borup, Felton, Halstad, Hendrum, Perley and Shelly, said residents in the district are organizing an opposition group called the Red River Downstream Impact Work Group.

"We want Fargo-Moorhead to have protection, but we hope that those who are in charge will keep in mind that we cannot tolerate even a quarter-inch downstream," Ista said.

Manley and others believe farmers would store water on their land if they were paid fairly, and that would eliminate the need for a diversion. Volk and corps officials agree that water retention is a good idea, but they said it is not enough.

"Water retention alone cannot solve the problems of the metro area," Volk said. "We all believe there's a need for upstream retention. That is part of the big picture plan, it just isn't part of the corps plan."

The Metro Flood Study Work Group has endorsed three possible diversion plans, two in North Dakota and one in Minnesota. The group prefers a $1.36 billion, 35,000-cubic-feet-per-second diversion in North Dakota, but the project must meet cost-benefit ratios determined by the corps.

The corps is under a tight timetable because Congress is expected to approve a major water projects bill next year, for the first time since 2002.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said lawmakers will want to know if a "vast majority of people" support the Red River project.

"With every plan, there are going to be some people who won't like it," she said. "But this a local decision. Our job on the federal level is to get the money."

Population estimates show about 195,000 people live in the Fargo, West Fargo and Moorhead areas. Last spring, it took a massive diking effort by residents to survive a record-setting flood that included two crests.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said he wants a permanent flood control project so his city can get out of the sandbagging business.

"I'm hoping that people will have to go to a museum to find out what sandbagging was like," he said.