BARNESVILLE, Minn. — A settlement agreement that will end lawsuits and issue permits related to the Fargo-Moorhead Area Diversion Project was signed Monday, Oct. 26, paving the way for the $2.75 billion project to proceed.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, chairman of the Metro Diversion Authority, called the agreement between the authority and upstream opponents to the diversion "monumental."
He said judicial and legislative leaders in both North Dakota and Minnesota urged the two sides to find common ground in order to move forward with flood protection for the Fargo-Moorhead area, and "that’s what the agreement does."
"I really commend all sides for coming together to find resolution. I think future generations will be grateful for the tremendous effort put into this," Mahoney said.
It was like two neighbors sitting down and working things out, he said. The Metro Flood Diversion Authority drew up the terms, which were agreed to by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Agreement, the Buffalo Red River Watershed District and the towns of Comstock and Wolverton.
The settlement will save taxpayers money by ending the lawsuits — one in federal court and two in Minnesota —Mahoney said. It will also provide relief funds and more flood protection to upstream residents and communities along the Red River.
“We believe this agreement gives us the local control to ensure that our concerns over the impacts in Richland County from the diversion project will be adequately addressed,” Richland County Commissioner Nathan Berseth said in a news release. “This agreement also recognizes the concerns of our school districts, townships, and ensures the City of Christine is not negatively affected from flooding due to the project.”
Wilkin County Commissioner Dennis Larson added, "We want Moorhead and Fargo to have flood protection, but it is paramount that our concerns in Wilkin County also be addressed. We need to make sure programs are in place to protect those who are impacted.”
The two counties had formed a Richland-Wilkin Joint Power Authority to represent their concerns about the diversion.
The agreement ends a federal lawsuit, a state lawsuit in Minnesota, and a lawsuit in the hands of an administrative law judge in Minnesota over a local permit that had not been granted by the Buffalo-Red River Watershed District.
The Watershed District agreed to sign the final permit needed in a meeting Monday night, allowing the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to complete its permitting process.
As for upstream opponents who have been raising concerns for years, an Economic Impact Relief Fund is being established for farmers, landowners, businesses and other parties that will be funded by the Diversion Authority with an initial deposit of $35 million and additional deposits after construction of the project is completed until it reaches $75 million.
The agreement also includes funding to complete or construct flood risk reduction projects in Christine, Comstock, Georgetown and Wolverton, all small towns along the river.
Other settlement provisions include development of a crop insurance program, a debris removal program, relief to impacted businesses, upstream cemetery agreements and further discussion related to the flexibility on upstream structures.
The Diversion Authority is composed of the Fargo, Moorhead, Cass County, Clay County and the Cass County Joint Water Resource District. A combination of federal, state and local sales tax money is paying for the diversion, which features a 22-mile diversion channel running to the west around the Fargo-Moorhead metro area and then connecting back to the Red River near Georgetown.
Joel Paulsen, the Diversion Authority’s executive director, has said the board decided to try to settle the litigation to remove uncertainty about when the project can be completed — officials hope to have a project done in time to fight a possible spring flood in 2028 — since lawsuits have no set resolution date.
“It would be the Diversion Authority’s preference to move off of litigation to provide certainty for the date of permanent flood protection. That’s a pretty important thing to us,” he said.
In fact, the Minnesota permit is the result of a compromise that altered the design of the project to win approval from Minnesota officials, who denied a permit for the original project.