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Moorhead worries about 'backup plan' if DNR says 'no' to diversion project

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MOORHEAD – One city councilwoman here wants to know what happens if Minnesota doesn’t sign off on the $1.8 billion proposed metro-area flood diversion.

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“I have yet to hear what the backup plan is, which makes me a little concerned,” Heidi Durand said during a nonvoting meeting of the council Monday.

Although Congress has federally authorized the diversion, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has yet to issue its Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed 36-mile channel around the metro. The EIS is expected next spring.

Durand said she thinks that if Minnesota says no, it would prevent Moorhead from being a local sponsor and that could sink the entire diversion.

The question of Moorhead being a local sponsor to the project has been raised at previous council meetings. Most recently, the issue came up when the council voted down diversion-related land surveys in May, with City Attorney John Shockley warning council members that these are things local project sponsors are expected to do.

Monday’s conversation got a little heated, with Councilwoman Nancy Otto, the board’s liaison to the Diversion Authority, raising her voice to ask her colleagues if there are even six votes on the council needed to move forward with the project once the time comes.

“I have to ask the question: If the DNR says ‘yes,’ are we going to have the votes to move forward, or should I just not bother to attend meetings anymore?” Otto asked. “Because otherwise, why should I take my vacation time to attend meeting after meeting and it’s for naught? I need to know.

“Our partners in this deserve to know an answer,” Otto added.

City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said it’s not clear what would happen if the DNR says no to the project, but he disagreed with Durand, saying he didn’t believe the DNR’s position would affect the project.

Fargo and Moorhead are the two local project sponsors. The Buffalo-Red River Watershed District and Clay County are Minnesota partners, not official sponsors.

“Could a different governmental body serve as a Minnesota sponsor? I’m pretty sure the answer to that question is yes,” Zimmerman said. “But I’m pretty sure the project that was authorized is the project, and it doesn’t necessarily hinge on sponsorship.”

Shockley said if the DNR says no to the diversion, it might come down to a jurisdictional issue: Does the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a federal agency, have the right to build the project anyway?

Durand said she wants those questions answered, but that she doesn’t want the city to end its sponsorship of the project.

“I think heck yeah, we do (want to be a sponsor),” Durand said. “I mean we have a very important piece in this project, and I think it’s very important we’re at the table.”

But while at the table, Durand said she wants to ask these important questions. Zimmerman reminded her that corps officials will be at next Monday’s council meeting.

“Oh, I got my questions written down,” Durand said with a laugh.

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Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com
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