Minnesota rejects Fargo-Moorhead flood project plan

Floodwall construction in Fargo, N.D.
File photo of floodwall construction work east of Fargo City Hall in downtown Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 9, 2015. This and other in-town levee and floodwall projects are intended to protect against a 100-year flood and complement the flood diversion project.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News File 2015

Updated 12:58 p.m. | Posted 11:32 a.m.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources on Monday denied a required permit for the massive Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project, putting the $2.2 billion plan in limbo.

The DNR cited several major reasons for rejecting the plan, arguing:

• Relying on existing and future flood control projects and emergency measures provides adequate protection. (Fargo and Moorhead have spent hundreds of millions of dollars raising levees and building floodwalls since the record flood of 2009.)

• There is a lack of consistency with state and local plans.

• The project has insufficient flood mitigation.

Fargo-Moorhead authorities are expected to appeal the permit decision.

The diversion plan called for a large levee to be built south of Fargo-Moorhead to hold back flood waters from the Red River and divert them into a 30-mile-long channel around the cities. Because the levee was considered a high hazard dam by the Minnesota DNR, a permit was required.

A nearly four-year federal environmental impact study found "no significant impact" in 2013.

The DNR, though, signaled its misgivings about the project in May when it released its environmental impact statement on the project.

The study identified concerns about land that would be flooded when the diversion is used, and how economic and social impacts will be mitigated.

Upstream opponents of the diversion project have filed several lawsuits in an effort to derail the project. They sued the DNR claiming the environmental assessment was not adequate. They also sued North Dakota after the state issued a permit for the project earlier this year.

Opponents say the project will flood farmland and displace residents south of Fargo-Moorhead. They argue options other than the diversion should have been considered and that the current diversion design should be modified to reduce upstream impacts.

Fargo-Moorhead officials contend the diversion is the only way to protect the cities from the Red River. In July, local officials signed an agreement with the federal government to begin construction on the project.

"Out of respect for Minnesota officials and the agency I'll withhold comment on how I really feel about the decision," said Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority Chairman Darrell Vanyo.

It appears the DNR wants Fargo and Moorhead to "continue doing what we've been doing" when it comes to flood protection," he added.

The potential options for appeal included filing with the Minnesota State Court of Appeals. It's also possible the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could challenge in federal court.

Col. Sam Calkins, the Corps' St. Paul district commander, said his agency needed time to digest the DNR's decision before responding.

"Right now, what I can say is that we are deeply disappointed with this determination after having worked with the state of Minnesota on this project for more than eight years," he said. "We will continue working with the sponsors to get this project completed."

Opponents of the diversion project applauded Monday's decision by the DNR to reject a permit.

"This is what we've been hoping for, praying for, and it came true," said Nathan Berseth, a Richland County, N.D., commissioner.

Berseth said he expects an extended legal battle between the Fargo-Moorhead diversion authority and the state of Minnesota, but he says for now "this slams the brakes on the project."