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Army Corps presses Red River flood project despite permit denial

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Floodwall construction in Fargo, N.D.
Floodwall construction work east of Fargo City Hall in downtown Fargo, N.D., on Nov. 9, 2015.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News 2015

The U.S Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday it will soon award its first contract for a massive Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project despite the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' refusal to sign a key construction permit.

Just two days after the DNR denied the required permit for the $2.2 billion project, Corps officials said they would move ahead anyway, citing public safety.

Corps' leaders also rebuked the DNR for its belief that the Fargo-Moorhead region could be protected by existing and future flood control projects and emergency measures.

"Sandbagging should not be viewed as a long-term solution for any community and certainly not for the Fargo-Moorhead metropolitan area, where the Red River of the North has exceeded flood stage in 51 of the past 113 years," Col. Sam Calkins, the Corps' St. Paul district commander, said in a statement. "The potential loss of life and economic devastation that would result from a failure of emergency measures are not acceptable risks."

Calkins said the Corps anticipates awarding its first contract for the project later this month.

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

On Monday, the agency cited those concerns again, and repeated its belief that emergency flood measures were adequate, when it denied the permit. 

That appeared to put the project in limbo. On Wednesday, however, the Corps said it wasn't a party to the DNR's decision and so it would move ahead to award a contract to build the diversion inlet at the junction of the diversion channel and the southern embankment near Horace, N.D.

"No construction is planned in Minnesota until 2019. The Corps can begin construction on the project in North Dakota, while working with stakeholders to resolve any remaining issues," the Corps said in a statement.

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.

Upstream opponents of the diversion project have filed several lawsuits in an effort to derail it. 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.