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Published July 22, 2014, 10:05 AM

Corps says F-M diversion likely to be built as proposed regardless of DNR environmental review

Corps officials say the $1.8 billion Fargo-Moorhead diversion project will likely be built as proposed, regardless of an environmental review on the Minnesota side.

By: Erik Burgess, Forum News Service

MOORHEAD, Minn. — Corps officials say the $1.8 billion Fargo-Moorhead diversion project will likely be built as proposed, regardless of an environmental review on the Minnesota side.

“I think ultimately this is going to get built,” said Aaron Snyder, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Project Management Branch in St. Paul.

Snyder told Moorhead City Council members Monday that the corps has “no reason to believe” the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources won’t “ultimately” support the 36-mile flood channel around the metro and that the corps won’t move forward with it as proposed.

“We believe that we will implement this plan as it is shown with minor modifications that we elect to make to continue to minimize impacts to people and to the environment,” Snyder said.

The comments came during an informational session with the City Council, where at least a pair of members had questions about what the “plan B” for the diversion would be if the Minnesota DNR didn’t sign off on it.

The diversion was authorized by Congress as part of the federal Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which was signed into law by President Barack Obama in June, but the Minnesota DNR is still conducting an environmental review of the project. A draft of that review is expected in May.

The project has been controversial for a few reasons, including flooding of surrounding farmlands in certain flooding events.

Councilwoman Heidi Durand has been vocal about concerns that the DNR, per state law, cannot sign off on the diversion if other, less damaging alternatives exist.

“So you’re confident that the DNR is going to side with you?” Durand asked corps officials. “You say it’s highly unlikely that they would not. We also know it’s highly unlikely to experience a 500-year flood. I think it’s likely that the DNR might come back and say, ‘No we cannot permit this,’ because by law they have to say no.”

Durand asked if there is a backup plan for the project, but Snyder said there is no reason for a backup plan because there’s no “really good, viable alternative” that gives the same amount of protection for the Fargo-Moorhead area.

“There’s just no need for it (a plan B) is the bottom line,” Snyder said. “This is the best plan for these communities.”

That comment bristled Councilman Chuck Hendrickson.

“If I was going to make a major purchase, I’d want a backup plan,” Hendrickson said.

All alternative plans have been dismissed for technical, safety and economic reasons, Snyder said. Several agencies have already conducted reviews of the project and determined it to be the best.

“The analysis that we’ve done is so robust that it points us in the right direction,” Snyder said. “We followed the federal process, which has been done countless times throughout the nation. There’s a reason the process is the way it is. It’s to get to the best plan, and that’s what this process did.”

He said those reviewers included the project’s local sponsors, corps officials in St. Paul and in the Mississippi Valley Division, an outside, independent peer-review firm that did two separate reviews, and the federal Office of Management and Budget.

“It just seems unlikely to me that one last review is going to come up with something that all those other reviewers didn’t find,” Councilman Mike Hulett said.

Snyder said the DNR would not be studying any alternatives not already studied — and ultimately dismissed — by the corps.

“Another thing to point to is that the corps only recommended one plan,” said Brett Coleman, a corps project manager. “There wasn’t multiple plans or a plan B. There’s one plan, and it’s the plan that was signed into law by President Obama.”

Snyder said it’s possible that a federal appropriation for the project could come next spring. The federal government is expected to put in about $800 million of the total price.

Mayor Del Rae Williams asked what would happen if the project received federal funding before the DNR finished its review.

“We would definitely be working with the DNR to see what could be done to make sure that we could implement the project in line with the authorities that we have that have been given to us by Congress,” Snyder said.