Dayton: FM Flood Protection A Must, But So Are Minnesota Concerns

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is pinning hopes of resolving a dispute with the Fargo-Moorhead flood protection project on a task force he and North Dakota Doug Burgum are establishing.

Protecting the Fargo-Moorhead area from floods is vital, Dayton said, but he will continue to oppose the current plan because many of his state’s residents were left out of its development.

The task force he and Burgum recently announced could end the impasse that resulted in a federal judge stopping most work on the flood diversion project, Dayton said in a Forum News Service interview.

“I am optimistic we will come up with something that is a decided improvement over what is on the table now,” Dayton said, adding that he is not sure the task force can reach an agreement to satisfy everyone.

“Virtually everyone agrees they want flood protection for the region,” the governor said, but some of those most affected — mainly farmers whose land would be used to hold back flood waters — had little or no say when the plan was drawn up.

“A lot of these dynamics have been locked in,” Dayton said about the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority that controls the project. “They have a plan they like now because they dictated it.”

There is strong opposition from south of Fargo-Moorhead, where farmers do not think they would get enough, if any, compensation to store flood water on their land. And they do not trust the authority.

“The diversion authority has zero credibility, has negative credibility, for people who have been excluded from the process,” Dayton said.

When the plan was drawn up, seven North Dakotans sat on the authority board, along with two Minnesotans. After Dayton and others complained, that was changed last year to eight from North Dakota, five from Minnesota and one representing landowners upstream (south) of Fargo-Moorhead.

The board change is a good step, Dayton said, but it came after the plan was in place.

Dayton said he could not give a list of project specific changes that are needed to satisfy Minnesota. Rather, he said, the need is to find a way to meet Minnesota law and rules that would allow the state to issue a permit for the dam that is a critical part of the $2.2 billion project that features a flood control channel running through North Dakota west of Fargo.

The DNR has not issued a permit, citing several reasons, including the fact that just 14 percent of the acres that would benefit from the project are in Minnesota, while 60 percent of land that would be flooded to protect Fargo and Moorhead is in Minnesota.

The DNR also claims the diversion authority does not have plans to reimburse all Minnesotans who would be affected by the project and that too many affected Minnesotans have had no say in the project.

During flood threats, water could be stored over 32,500 acres of mostly agricultural land upstream in North Dakota and Minnesota to prevent Fargo and Moorhead flooding.

Even if Dayton is not sure affected Minnesotans will be accept whatever recommendation the task force draws up, at least one key Minnesotan said she is optimistic.

“I really am,” Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams said. “I think we are the kind of people who can solve things. I think when the governors get together and want to do something, things will happen.”

However, she was less optimistic about getting the work done by Nov. 6, the date the authority must decide whether to appeal the federal judge’s ruling that stopped work until Minnesota’s concerns are answered.

In an interview, Williams made it clear she supports her governor: “I can’t say everyone feels that way. I can’t say everyone trusts my governor, but I do.”

While Williams said she backs the existing plan, she said she is open to changes and understands the complaints of people who feel they had no say.

She added that she expects the full authority board to seriously consider any recommendation from the task force. She said North Dakota officials appear willing to compromise.

The board has the final say in the project unless federal courts step in.

Williams said she was happy when she heard that Dayton promised that task force meetings will be open to the public.

When officials kicked a Forum of Fargo-Moorhead reporter out of a recent meeting, mostly consisting of government officials, it made the public suspicious of what was going on inside, she said. It was mostly a get-to-know-you session with a new U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official whose agency is building the project, the mayor said.