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Al Carlson, left, former North Dakota House majority leader, Tom Dawson, a business leader, and Rep. Kelly Armstrong, R-N.D., were among leaders who gathered Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, to make the case for the $2.75 billion Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion. Patrick Springer / The Forum

Leaders: 'Not time to panic,' but Red River flood diversion 'needs to come to fruition'

MOORHEAD, Minn. — The Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project faces stiff challenges to secure needed funding and withstand appeals to a crucial permit — obstacles that can and must be overcome, local business and political leaders said.

On the heels of a prediction for a substantially increased risk of a significant spring flood, the leaders gathered Friday, Feb. 22, to underscore the importance of seeing the $2.75 billion flood protection project to completion.

The project would use a bypass channel to divert half of the flows along the Red River during extreme floods, similar to features in Wahpeton-Breckenridge and Winnipeg projects. But to avoid significant downstream impacts, the Fargo-Moorhead diversion would use a dam to temporarily hold back water — creating a reservoir roughly once every 20 years that has provoked opposition from upstream landowners and interests.

Al Carlson, former House majority leader in the North Dakota Legislature, acknowledged that the obstacles will be difficult to surmount, but “not even close to impossible,” if pursued strategically and diligently.

A major hurdle is securing another $300 million in funding each from the state of North Dakota and federal government. So far, legislation taking shape in Bismarck includes $133 million in support in addition to the $570 million already committed by the state.

Carlson, who maintains close contact with former legislative colleagues, said he believes a financial package for the full $300 million can be assembled.

“We need to use some creative financing,” he said. The money could come from four sources, Carlson added, including a couple of major special funds, the Bank of North Dakota and a major infrastructure initiative for local governments called “Operation Prairie Dog,” that has significant legislative support.

“This is a multi-legged stool,” he said.

Carlson added: “This is not the time to panic. This is the time to sit back and say, ‘How do we fill all the gaps?’”

Tom Dawson, head of the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber’s Business Leaders Task Force for Permanent Flood Protection, said “carloads, busloads and planeloads” of local business people traveled to Bismarck to plead the case for the diversion.

One of their key messages: The flood diversion is crucial not only to protect existing businesses, but also to maintain a viable investment environment to attract future businesses in the state’s biggest metro area.

Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, who attended the press conference but did not speak, said later that federal funding is the largest concern among state lawmakers.

“Talk needs to turn into a check," he said.

Joel Paulsen, a member of the Moorhead City Council and board member of the Diversion Authority, said permanent flood protection is needed to protect $20 billion in property in the metro area. Minnesota lawmakers are being asked to provide $39 million to complete flood protection in Moorhead.

“There’s really no question that this project needs to come to fruition,” he said. “It’s so important that we get this completed.”

Mary Scherling, a Cass County commissioner and chairwoman of the Diversion Authority board, said local officials will continue working with landowners and upstream officials to strike compromises that address their concerns.

“We are closer than ever to completion of this historic infrastructure project,” she said, noting that the North Dakota Senate voted 40-5 to approve additional diversion funds, a clear sign “state support remains firm.”

The latest flood forecast, which holds a 5 percent chance of a flood crest of 36.9 feet — with a possibly wet March ahead — is a reminder that “we’re only one sandbag away from devastating loss,” Scherling said.

John Riewer, president and chief executive officer of Eventide Senior Living Communities, said his organization had to scramble to arrange for the evacuation of 450 frail, elderly residents within hours during the record 2009 flood.

Working under extreme time pressures to arrange transportation and find available beds for such a vulnerable population was extremely difficult, he said.

“You can’t load a stretcher on a school bus, that I can tell you,” Riewer said. It’s an experience he and other senior communities and health care providers don’t want to repeat.