Judge halts work on $2.1 billion Red River diversion project

Floodwall construction in Fargo, N.D.
Floodwall construction in Fargo, N.D.
Ann Arbor Miller | MPR News file

Updated: 6:27 p.m. | Posted: 5:34 p.m.

A federal judge has put a temporary stop to construction on the Red River flood diversion project while a court challenge brought by Minnesota and other opponents proceeds.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim agreed the $2.1 billion project requires permits from Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources, and without them work affecting Minnesota waters must stop.

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. A permit was required because the Minnesota DNR considered the levee to be a high-hazard dam.

Opponents say the project will flood farmland and displace residents south of Fargo-Moorhead, while protecting land that is currently in the floodplain in North Dakota. They argue that options other than the diversion should have been considered and that the current diversion design should be modified to reduce upstream impacts.

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Minnesota DFL Gov. Mark Dayton praised Tunheim's ruling.

"This ruling is excellent news for the safety and protection of Minnesotans, whose lands and livelihoods could be devastated by the diversion project, as proposed," the governor's statement read. "Importantly, it also upholds Minnesota's rightful permitting authority."

Last October, the Minnesota DNR rejected permits for the Red River flood diversion based on negative environmental and social impacts. However, the Army Corps of Engineers subsequently awarded a contract to start construction on the project, which prompted the state's decision to join the lawsuit initially filed by other opponents.

"Today's decision clearly and unequivocally confirmed DNR's position that the federal legislation authorizing this project requires state permits," DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said in a statement. "As the DNR has stated consistently in this matter, the public interest is not served by allowing the Corps and Diversion Authority to invest public funds in construction in the absence of the required state permits, which are designed to protect the public and the environment."

In his ruling, Tunheim urged all parties to find a workable solution.

The Fargo Moorhead Diversion Authority issued a statement expressing disappointment in Tunheim's decision and indicating it may appeal. However, it didn't rule out working toward a compromise.

"This ruling delays the protection of every family, business, and home in our community," said Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who also chairs the diversion authority. "We will keep working hard toward establishing flood protection for the Fargo and Moorhead communities, hopefully we can do that in partnership with Minnesota."