The governors of Minnesota and North Dakota are leading an effort salvage a flood control project for Fargo-Moorhead after a federal judge stopped construction of the $2.2 billion Red River diversion.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and North Dakota GOP Gov. Doug Burgum have spoken twice since the court's ruling, and both issued statements saying they hope to resolve the dispute.
Dayton said this week he wants to meet with people in Moorhead and Minnesotans who live upstream and downstream of the project before starting any technical discussion about a future project.
Burgum said he wants to work with Minnesota to modify the existing diversion project so it can meet DNR permit requirements without having to seek a new federal authorization.
The project must include a diversion and a dam to continue under the existing authorization, said Terry Williams, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers. If those key components change, the project would need new congressional approval, she said.
Williams said there are many changes that could be made without risking the project authorization, and the Corps of Engineers is committed to making the project work. She said Corps has not been included in recent discussions about modifying the project.
The Red River diversion project has been in the works for nearly a decade.
Four years ago, county governments upstream on both sides of the river sued to stop the project, saying it would shift flooding to their residents. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources later joined the lawsuit.
Minnesota won't issue permits for the project as it's currently designed, and the judge ruled those permits are needed to build the project.
Fargo-Moorhead officials pushed ahead. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started construction this summer without Minnesota permits.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, who also chairs the Diversion Authority, has said he believed the Army Corps of Engineers could move ahead without Minnesota permits for the project. "We'd always been of the opinion we'd get a permit in Minnesota," he said.
The Diversion Authority contested the DNR permit decision. When a judge rejected the argument that Minnesota permits are not needed, the diversion authority dropped that appeal.
That's when Mahoney said it became clear to him the dispute should be resolved outside of the courts.
"It's better if we can solve our issue with Minnesota, because otherwise you have this ongoing lawsuit, that could be a 2- to 3-year delay," he said. "We see it as a blessing in disguise. Let's try to figure out what our differences are, get everybody on the team, then move forward."
But that might be easier said than done.
Upstream opponents and the DNR say the project as currently designed is unacceptable. Mahoney believes the project just needs a few tweaks.
But any solution agreeable to upstream opponents will require significant changes, said Richland County North Dakota Commissioner Nathan Berseth. Simply tweaking the current plan would be "unfortunate" for those in the Red River Valley, he said.
"We've always been willing to negotiate and we'll continue to negotiate," Berseth said, "but we won't negotiate if it's this project but with a little bit of lipstick."
When the Minnesota DNR denied permits for the project, one reason was that the agency found a primary benefit of the project was protecting undeveloped land south of Fargo for future development, while shifting flooding to land in Minnesota that hasn't flooded in the past.
The DNR declined an interview request. But that undeveloped land remains a key issue for upstream opponents.
"They're saying their land is more important than anybody's upstream," Berseth said. "And it flies right in the face of Minnesota state law and it cannot happen."
Mahoney, the Fargo mayor, remains confident a deal can be negotiated to save the current project largely intact.
It's a process of educating people, he said. And having the governors involved is a good sign the dispute can be resolved, Mahoney said.
"What we're saying is let's look at any option available and see what happens."