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Published April 11, 2010, 12:00 AM

The great divide: Landowners organize to oppose N.D. diversion

Tom Beaton drove his pickup truck past one flooded field after another, somehow able to find humor in the fact that last fall’s corn crop still waited to be harvested in April.

Tom Beaton drove his pickup truck past one flooded field after another, somehow able to find humor in the fact that last fall’s corn crop still waited to be harvested in April.

“Here stands the 340-day corn we put in last year,” he deadpanned, pointing at the dull yellow stalks damaged by wind and water.

If he’s lucky, the overland flooding giving him a lakeside view from his farmhouse a mile west of West Fargo will drain off in time for the fields to dry and a crop to be seeded.

But it’s the long-term future of Beaton’s operation that most concerns him.

A proposed North Dakota diversion to protect Fargo-Moorhead from Red River flooding would plow right through his farmstead, according to a preliminary drawing by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

An alternative alignment, 1½ miles to the west, would consume 400 acres of his farmland, he estimated.

The 60-year-old said either scenario would make it harder for his two sons to take over the farm.

“Fargo has to do something, I know,” he said of the diversion. “But, I guess, yeah, I am opposed to it coming out around our area, because we’ve taken the West Fargo diversion through our land, we took Interstate 94 through our land, and what more do they want to throw at us?”

Opponents organizing

Beaton and a number of other landowners with shared concerns about the diversion’s path have begun to organize.

About 40 people attended an initial meeting March 27 at a West Fargo restaurant, and an e-mail list keeps 30 to 40 people abreast of developments, organizer David Gust said.

“We’re not opposed to the diversion,” he said. “I think it’s just a group that’s concerned about effects on our neighbors.”

Another organizer, Kevin Heiden, said among the chief concerns is how the amount of land consumed by the diversion – estimated at 6,500 to 6,600 acres – will affect the area, including farm production and transportation.

“The people that live out in the country now that would be affected by this diversion channel, their lives are going to be changed forever,” said Heiden, who lives in West Fargo and owns a farmstead north of Harwood in the diversion’s path.

The governing bodies of Fargo, Moorhead and Cass and Clay counties have all endorsed a North Dakota diversion capable of carrying 35,000 cubic feet of water per second. For perspective, the Red’s peak flow through Fargo during the record flood of 2009 was 29,500 cfs.

Officials in the corps’ St. Paul District have asked their superiors

for permission to proceed with the

$1.295 billion plan, while at the same time studying a 20,000-cfs Minnesota diversion identified as the most cost-effective plan.

As the corps moves forward with the North Dakota diversion, it could face opposition similar to what local leaders encounter in Minnesota, where landowners paid a lobbyist to help convince local leaders that it made more sense to put a diversion on lower ground west of the Red.

Heiden said one of landowners’ biggest concerns is that the corps has a concept for the diversion but no specific plan to critique.

“If they are seriously considering this west-side diversion, there needs to be a plan that people can see, where they say, ‘This is not going to work,’ ” he said.

Plan ‘in the ballpark’

Such a plan is still a ways off, said Craig Evans, a corps engineer who is co-managing the project.

“Everything that we’re going to be proposing over the summer is somewhat preliminary,” he said, adding the corps must do enough work to show the diversion’s cost and environmental impacts.

However, while the diversion’s final alignment may differ from the current map, it won’t change a lot, Evans said.

“We’re not going to be moving it several miles one way or the other, because then we’d have to redo all our environmental analysis,” he said. “So, we’re going to be in the ballpark of what we’re showing.”

A formal comment period for landowners will follow release of the corps’ draft environmental impact statement, tentatively set for May 21, Evans said. The corps also plans to hold meetings with landowners.

In the meantime, he encouraged landowners to share input with local officials.

“And the same goes on the Minnesota side, because we don’t know for sure that the North Dakota plan will get approved,” he said.

Heiden said he doesn’t support any diversion that worsens flooding downstream. He’d like to see a combination of a smaller diversion and higher levees in Fargo.

“The problem in this flooding area lies in Fargo, so Fargo should do something in their city to protect themselves,” he said. “And if that means moving some houses along the river, well, so be it.”

Local leaders dismissed levees and floodwalls as the primary form of flood protection because, according to a corps study, they could only protect to a 100-year flood level and would require moving more than 1,000 homes so the barriers could be built far enough from the river to be stable.

A 35,000-cfs diversion would require moving five or six homes and take roughly the same amount of land whether it’s in North Dakota or Minnesota, Evans said.

Gust said landowners realize if the corps decides to proceed with a diversion, “there’s really not much we could do about it.

“We just wanted to make sure that people are compensated properly for the land that would be taken,” he said.

Beaton said he expects farmers to be offered a fair price for their property.

“But where do we go to get land to replace what we lost around here?” he said.

Addressing impacts

Some landowners also are concerned a Red River diversion will worsen overland flooding as they believe the Sheyenne River Diversion has done west of Horace and West Fargo.

Beaton said the land around his farmstead has flooded only three times in his lifetime – in 1997, 2009 and 2010. Last year, he hurriedly erected an earthen ring dike around the farmstead, and floodwaters came within 18 inches of the top, he said.

“We just never sat with water like this before the diversion was put here,” he said.

But Evans said the region’s wet cycle, not the diversion, is to blame for the more severe floods.

“It’s not the fact that the channel was built that caused it,” he said. “It’s the fact that you saw water you’d never seen before.”

Still, the corps is aware of issues with water not being able to drain off farmland when the level in the Sheyenne Diversion is too high, Evans said.

To address the problem, the Red diversion would be designed so water could flow into the channel during a 100-year flood, he said.

Preliminary designs show the channel would measure 2,000 to 2,200 feet wide from the outer edges of its spoil banks.

How much of the diversion would be allowed to be farmed hasn’t been decided. The corps would plant prairie grasses and try to create a natural stream environment in certain parts of the channel, Evans said.

“In other parts of the channel, we may allow it to be hayed, but we’re not going to want people inside the channel planting anything,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528