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Construction workers build a floodwall in Minot, N.D., during the first phase of the Mouse River Enhanced Floor Protection Project. IMAGE: Ackerman-Estvold

At times it takes decades – not just years – to build significant water projects in the region

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Diverting rivers, preventing floods and pumping an entire region’s water supply up and over a continental divide? That’s the easy part.

It’s the politics of water projects that’s hard.

A lack of engineering skill isn’t what has kept much of the Garrison Diversion on the drawing board for more than 50 years, or tied up the Northwest Area Water Supply Project in court from 2002 until May. “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” the saying goes; and on the High Plains no less than California and elsewhere in the arid West, that has proven to be true.

Here’s a review of the status – meaning the politics – of three of the region’s biggest civil-engineering water projects: the Garrison Diversion/Red River Valley Water Supply Project, the above-mentioned NAWS and the Mouse River Enhanced Flood Control Project, which will reduce the risk of flooding in both Minot and elsewhere in the Mouse River Basin.

Mouse River Enhanced Flood Control Project

As Prairie Business-area residents know, the Mouse River’s 2011 flood destroyed some 4,000 homes in Minot and caused about a billion dollars in damage. As a result, a billion-dollar improvement project is underway, and it will help protect not just Minot but also other Mouse River communities against floods.

But here’s what’s less well known: The area’s recovery has been slow, because of “a perfect storm of economics stacking up against our people here in Minot,” said Ryan Ackerman, president and CEO of Ackerman-Estvold of Minot, the project engineering firm.

That storm starts with the place where the flood did the most damage: the river-valley floor in Minot. “If you look at the housing supply by the Mouse River in Minot, that’s where our affordable housing exists,” Ackerman said.

“In contrast, if you compare that to other river cities in the state, that’s generally where a lot of the nicer houses are.” 

And that geographic quirk turns out to matter in key ways.

First, it means that many who got flooded were especially hard hit, because they had few resources to spare. They were left underwater on their mortgages as well in as their homes: “Unfortunately, our population that is vulnerable primarily lives in the river valley,” Ackerman said.

Second, the demography hurt Minot in the city’s effort to qualify for federal funds. The Corps of Engineers’ cost/benefit analysis takes property values into account. That means “low- to moderate-income housing is discounted significantly as compared to housing for the affluent,” Ackerman said.

Moreover, Minot’s existing flood-protection plan counts against the city, because its presence shrinks the net benefit of a new system.  

As a result, “ours primarily has been a state- and local-driven effort,” because Minot has come up short in the Corps’ cost-benefit calculations, he said.

Couple that with proposed federal flood-insurance reforms that could inflate some premiums from $500 currently to more than $10,000 a year, and you’ll see why Minot residents are feeling somewhat  beleaguered.

But all is not lost. Far from it, Ackerman said. 

For one thing, federal agencies such as FEMA and the Corps are offering as much help as they can. For another, “the state of North Dakota has been an absolutely fantastic partner,” he said.

And for another, the project now is underway, and the improvements it’ll bring to Minot and other Mouse River communities promise to be transformative.

That’s because modern flood-protection systems not only lower flood risk but also boost quality of life.

Similar to Grand Forks, N.D.’s experience, Minot’s planned Greenway “is definitely going to be a game-changer for the region,” Ackerman said. 

“In the past, we’ve shut ourselves off from the river – this resource that flows through our communities. But that whole attitude is changing, as the community is coming to embrace the river and the many benefits it can provide.” 

Northwest Area Water Supply Project

“It’s nothing you really want to drink,” said a Bottineau, N.D. resident, speaking to a reporter last year about the town’s water.

“It’s got an odor to it. Smells like rotten eggs when you first turn the faucet on.”

And Bottineau’s not alone. As far back as 1986, state officials recognized that the groundwater supplying many communities in northwestern North Dakota was inadequate and did not meet standards.

The Northwest Area Water Supply Project was the result. 

Now, it’s 2019, and the project to bring Missouri River water to 81,000 residents of northwest North Dakota still is far from complete.

But don’t despair, because “the biggest thing about NAWS is that we just came out of a 17-year lawsuit,” said Kevin Martin, senior project manager at Houston Engineering in Bismarck, N.D., the lead consultant on the project.

Manitoba had sued in 2002, claiming NWAS could transfer harmful organisms from the Missouri River Basin to the Hudson Bay Basin. Last year, the province withdrew its objections after winning a say in the project’s water treatment.

Missouri had sued more recently over fears that NAWS would excessively deplete the Missouri River. But the state lost in an appeals court in May, clearing the way for construction to begin.

And just in time: “We can’t use the groundwater supply indefinitely because we’re mining the aquifers,” Martin said. 

“Those aquifers have shown a dramatic decline over time. It’s just not sustainable, and the water quality is very poor.”

Now, “if the next legislative session commits enough funding, we could be wrapped up with the entire project in probably eight years.” And when that happens, “the net result will be water from Lake Sakakawea being piped to serve as a primary freshwater source in Minot and other communities in northwest and north-central North Dakota.

“Which everyone will be really happy with,” Martin said. “We’re finally getting to the point where we see the light at the end of the tunnel, and we know that it’s not a train.”

Garrison Diversion/Red River Valley Water Supply Project

The original Garrison Diversion would have diverted Missouri River water through thousands of miles of canals for major irrigation, among other projects. But the plan was one of the most contentious in North Dakota history, sparking nationwide debate that included this headline over a Washington Post editorial: “Kill the Garrison Diversion.”

Smartly, the plan’s backers shifted their focus toward a project that would directly benefit many more people. If the Red River Valley Water Supply Project is completed, the 165-mile pipeline could – during times of prolonged drought – serve fully half the population of the state, said Duane DeKrey, general manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District.

The pipeline would divert water when needed from the Missouri to the Sheyenne River, giving Red River Valley residents and others access to an emergency water supply. That reasoning – coupled with the fact that the Red River basically ran dry in the 1930s – has won the plan solid statewide and congressional support. 

But a few key hurdles remain, including potential downstream opposition, higher priority water projects and the changing landscape of federal environmental rules.

By “downstream,” we mean down the Missouri River, not the Red. “Canada doesn’t object to transferring the water,” as a treatment plant is planned and Canadian communities “also could benefit from augmented flows on the Red River during extended droughts,” the Bismarck Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, the NAWS project’s May victory in the state of Missouri’s lawsuit boosts the Red River Valley project’s odds of surviving any similar challenge.

In general, North Dakota lawmakers give higher priority to protecting Fargo and Minot from floods, and that bumps the Red River Valley pipeline down on the priority list. Even so, lawmakers have supported the project in earnest – and it’s vital for them to keep doing so, DeKrey said.

That’s because “things can go south with the federal government, as we’ve seen many times with this project.”

The Obama-era “Waters of the United States” rule is DeKrey’s main concern. A court order has stayed the rule in North Dakota and some 20-plus other states. But should the rule ever take effect, its strict federal controls would make building the pipeline “virtually impossible,” North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven has said.

As a result, the project’s backers want construction to start as soon as possible. This could ensure the Red River Valley Water Supply Project would be grandfathered in, even if the rules change.  

“So we’re hoping to bid out our early construction late this fall, and then break ground next spring,” DeKrey said. And after that, the $1.16 billion project likely will take about 10 years to complete.