Group promoting Red River diversion channel tries to quell controversy with letter to governor

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FARGO, North Dakota — Opponents of a nearly $2 billion Red River flood control project that would mostly benefit North Dakota's largest city, Fargo, have enlisted the support of two powerful allies, including Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton.

Dayton and another Minnesota Democrat, state Rep. Paul Marquart, have thrown their lot in with upstream residents who are unhappy that the diversion plans call for a holding area that would flood farmland, buildings and cemeteries in times when the channel is needed to protect 200,000 residents in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota area.

The two men criticized the project after the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority earlier this summer opted to start construction on a ring dike around towns that would be in the holding area without waiting for an environmental study to be completed. Dayton said it's akin to "kicking sand in the face" of Minnesota. Marquart, of Dilworth, Minnesota, said the authority needs to change or be replaced.

Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the nine-person board, said he got the message. He sent a letter to Dayton last Monday offering to limit construction on the ring dike and delay construction on the diversion channel until the environmental review is done. He also offered to add more Minnesota members to the authority board, which currently only has two members representing Minnesota interests, including Clay County Commissioner Kevin Campbell.

"I think the letter is a step in the right direction to get this thing to work," Campbell said. "I think the governor believes it needs to be worked out, too."

Matt Swenson, Dayton's spokesman, said the governor has read the letter and will likely respond in the next few days.

The Fargo-Moorhead area battled major flooding three straight years, starting with a record crest in 2009. The 36-mile diversion channel has been authorized by Congress but federal funding for the project would need to be appropriated each year to cover construction costs, which would be shared by local, state and federal governments. The federal share would be more than $800 million.

Marquart said the letter to Dayton might show that authority members "realized they have to change their tactics and strategy," but that he's still not impressed.

"So they're going to add another upstream member. Who is that going to be and are they going to have a real voice at the table?" Marquart said. "I really don't think the letter solves the political implications."

He said Minnesota lawmakers could refuse to pay the state's 10 percent share of the overall cost, and that a lack of agreement between the states could jeopardize its federal funding.

Marquart said he planned to wait until the environmental study was completed before speaking publicly about the project, but that he was forced to come forward by the decision to start construction on the ring dike.

Campbell said the board was acting on the advice of its attorneys, who said the ring dike was an independent utility that could be built with or without the diversion. He said he and the authority's other Minnesota member, Nancy Otto, would not approve something that would hurt their own state, and added that the Moorhead area has a lot to lose without the protection.

"Never did we ever consider that we were walking over Minnesota's rights," he said.

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