Lawmakers look at downstream impact

A northwestern Minnesota legislator plans to ask his colleagues to help protect residents downstream of Fargo-Moorhead from increased flooding if a proposed diversion project is built.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, Thursday night said that on Monday he will offer an amendment to a public works funding bill that would prohibit spending state money on the diversion if the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not make an effort to protect downstream communities.

"We’re not trying to stop the diversion by any means," he said, but his constituents and others from north of Fargo-Moorhead are worried about higher river levels they would experience once a diversion is in place.

"At the very least, don’t do any more harm to us," Eken said.

As chairman of the House Environment Policy and Oversight Committee, Eken ran a three-hour hearing Thursday night on Red River Valley flood issues.

Corps official Craig Evans said his agency has not looked into all of the downstream problems a diversion could cause. However, he said, most of the impact would be in North Dakota.

Eken’s committee heard that up to a foot more water could flow into communities north of Fargo-Moorhead if the diversion is built.

Charlie Anderson of the Red River Watershed Management Board told Eken it would cost $100 million to prevent worse floods downstream.

Hendrum Mayor Curt Johannsen said his community could be an island for up to two months if flooding is made worse.

"If we work together, why can’t we find a solution for the whole area instead of one localized area?" he asked.

Henry Van Offelen of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy said that officials throughout the Red River Valley area are working together on a flood-protection plan.

Much of the meeting was spent discussing how water can be held back from the Red and its tributaries by building pond-like structures that would keep water from flowing into streams until flood waters recede. While enough water cannot be held back to protect Fargo-Moorhead, experts said the structures could lower flood waters there and downstream all the way to Lake Winnipeg in Canada.

Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said that he agrees that downstream impacts must be considered.

"We need to keep the pressure on the corps," he said.

If the estimated $1 billion diversion channel is built in North Dakota, as many expect, about $100 million of work would be done on the Minnesota side.

The public works funding bill coming up Monday, also known as bonding bill, contains $50 million for flood projects throughout the state, the same as Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants. Senators passed a bill with $70 million for floods.

But Ron Harnack of the Red River Watershed Management Board said that more than $120 million is needed. He suggested looking elsewhere for the money.

"We’ve got to find a way to bring more federal dollars to the table," Harnack said.

The Senate bill does not contain Eken’s proposal to protect downstream communities. But if he gets it in the House bill, Senate negotiators could accept it when they work out differences between the two measures.

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