Minnesota and North Dakota are at odds over the construction of a rural ring levee opponents say is part of the approximately $2-billion Fargo, N.D.-Moorhead, Minn., Diversion Project designed to change the course of the Red River, which threatens to flood both cities almost every spring.
In May, a federal judge stopped construction until the Minnesota Dept. of Natural Resources completes its ongoing environmental review of the project. The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority says losing the remainder of the construction season would cost $2 million.
The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority and MnDak Upstream Coalition filed suit in April 2014 to stop construction of the the Oxbow-Hickson-Bakke ring levee, intended to protect a series of rural communities south of Fargo from ongoing flooding and against water stored upstream by the diversion. The authority says it is a stand-alone project, but plaintiffs argued that it is a part of the larger project and therefore subject to the Minnesota DNR's review findings.
What's really at stake is that Fargo politicians want to build into the natural floodplain to develop the area for higher property tax rates, says Gerald Von Korff, plaintiff's attorney. "The area they want to protect for development and tax assessment purposes is the size of Minneapolis," he says. "Fargo is one of the least dense cities in the U.S. People will start to build there again after it has flood protection."
A resident of Bakke, N.D., Marcus Larson, testified in May that construction work continued at the site despite the federal injunction. Von Korff said this is evidence the authority has continuously rejected its obligation to comply with Minnesota and U.S. law. "They think the fines they might face from the court will be less than the cost of freezing the construction contracts," Larson says.
The FM diversion has put itself and contractors at risk with its fait accompli tactics, Von Korff says. "Six [authority] lawyers should be smart enough to put into a contract that the authority doesn't have to pay contractors if the project is enjoined. It's just common practice. "
Robert Cattanach, attorney for the authority, argued that construction work was not being continued on the ring levee. "The only construction work being performed there now is by private homeowners," he said, but declined to comment further. The authority is appealing the U.S. district court ruling.
"All those houses he's talking about are on land owned by the authority," Von Korff says.
The Red River has exceeded flood stage in 49 of the past 110 years, every year from 1993 through 2011, and again in 2013. Because of the danger, there is strong federal support for the diversion. Terry Williams, project manger with the Army Corps of Engineers in St. Paul, said the project was authorized by the Water Resources Reform and Development Act, but no funding has been appropriated at the federal level. The project needs $800 million in U.S. funding. "It's up to Congress now," she says.
The primary construction manager for the authority, CH2M Vice President Tom Waters, did not return ENR's request for comment regarding the risks the injunction posed for the company.