A planned $2-billion flood-control project for the Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., metro area allocates $5 million worth of construction funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in its 2016 work plan, said Terry Williams, corps project manager in St. Paul.

The sum is a small piece of the overall financing needed, but the Corps said it was a symbolic milestone for a project already under development for more than 10 years. “This is the most important funding this project has ever received—and probably ever will receive—because it is the first federal funding for construction,” Williams says. “All Corps activity, so far, has been in planning and engineering. Now, actual construction can begin.”

The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion involves building a 36-mile trench around Fargo, to divert floodwater, and a dam across the Red River, which divides Minnesota and North Dakota. During major floods, the project will temporarily store up to 150,000 acre-ft of floodwater immediately upstream of the diversion-channel inlet to minimize downstream impacts, the Corps said.

Upstream communities, however, dispute that strategy. Days after the release of the work plan, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in St. Paul, heard arguments over whether to allow construction to move forward on a diversion-related ring levee, south of Fargo, says Gerald Von Korff, attorney for the Richland Wilkins Joint Powers Authority, a community group that opposes the current project design.

The group won a victory in June, when U.S. District Judge Jon Tunheim halted construction of the levee until the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources (MDNR) completes its environmental review. Minnesota authorities have opposed the part of the diversion project that includes construction of a dam across the Red River because it would protect certain communities at the expense of others, Von Korff says.

MDNR “allowed diversion officials to submit a draft environmental impact statement to Congress with explicit language that this issue about the dam would be solved through the state permitting process,” he tells ENR.

“Then, they start rolling out all this equipment to start construction—almost immediately—with the position that congressional approval superseded the project’s need for a permit. Gov. [Mark] Dayton [D] got so emotional about it because he felt like he was double-crossed by the diversion authority.”

Attorneys for Fargo’s diversion authority said the proposed ring levee should be allowed because it is independent of the larger project and wouldn’t cause irreparable harm. “That was the basis of their appeals argument during the 15 minutes both sides were given in early February,” Von Korff says.

Local reports said the diversion authority’s attorneys argued that the ring levee would provide needed flood protection for communities south of Fargo, even if they are not affected by the proposed diversion.

The risks are real. If Tunheim’s ruling holds, major parts of the diversion program would have to be redesigned. Neither the diversion authority nor its attorneys were immediately available for comment.

Ultimately, the fight is not about flood protection but a “land grab,” Von Korff says. Developer interests in Fargo want to invade the natural floodplain for the sake of building on 50-plus square miles of land that would double the size of a city already geographically bigger than Minneapolis- St. Paul, which has a population of over four million. Fargo’s population is 168,000.

“It’s the biggest invasion of a natural floodplain in U.S. history,” Von Korff says.

The Corps’ work plan, released on Feb. 9, acknowledges the need for MDNR’s environmental approval and requires all other state and local permits to be completed before construction can begin.

Now that Congress has funded the project’s construction, the Corps, in partnership with the diversion authority, will proceed with the execution of a project partnership agreement and begin construction this year, Williams says.

Project managers will be looking for a private partner for much of the dam and diversion construction, Williams says.