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No surprises expected from Red River diversion EIS review

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MOORHEAD—While Minnesota Department of Natural Resource officials expected most comments would be directed at the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion alignment called "Plan B," on Thursday, Sept. 13, they hoped the crowd of about 100 would raise any new issues with its draft environmental impact statement that they have not yet considered.

DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said Thursday's open house in Moorhead and current gathering of public comment is meant for comments regarding the environmental impacts, which the DNR released Aug. 27.

The EIS is an informational document that reviews the project's impact on the environment and compliance with local laws. The review also ruled out all other alternatives identified so far, including one proposed by the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, two upstream counties that have sued to stop the project.

"The EIS is not a decision-making document," Landwehr said. "It doesn't advise to go ahead with the project or not go ahead with the project. It's just informational."

Plan B, which reroutes the dam radically and allows more floodwater on the Red River through Fargo-Moorhead, came out of a task force Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum convened last fall to hammer out a compromise. In a version of the project that regulators rejected in 2016, 40 percent of the flooding would have been in Minnesota. The new Plan B alignment calls for 27 percent of the flooding to land in Minnesota.

Lyle Hoveland, a District 3 Wilkin County commissioner who represents many rural landowners, said the impacts of the new alignment did not change much for them.

"Plan B does not change a whole lot for most of the people in Wilkin County," he said. "If you're flooded by this project, it's a bad deal. You can't farm on it anymore; you can't build on it anymore. The total impact is just as great or greater. You won't get anyone in that area to say Plan B is better than Plan A. They won't."

The EIS explores compensation compliance and alternatives for landowners that would be in the affected pathway, something some say can't really be quantified.

"It's not like changing a house," District 2 Wilkin County Commissioner Miranowski said. "To take an entire farm — the acreage and the sweat and tears you've put into it — you can't take that and go buy another farm another place somewhere else. You can see why they are frustrated; this is their livelihood and it's generational farms."

Diversion alignment alternatives are considered through the EIS, of which 29 were rejected in the environmental review process of both alignment plans. The review also considers three alternatives brought up by task force members and a no-action alternative required under state law. Thursday's meeting allowed citizens to ask if other alternatives have been considered.

"It's always good to have public input so that if there is something we haven't heard, we can hear," Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said. "We've kind of looked at everything. We're happy because unless there is a finding that says, 'you missed this or didn't do that,' then the EIS might be made final, and that's what we want to get to."

The draft supplemental EIS still lists some areas of concern that will need to be addressed before moving forward, Landwehr said.

"Those are some things we know we'll have to work on with the Diversion Authority," Landwehr said.

While the environmental impact is analyzed, the DNR continues to work on the permitting process that is needed to move Plan B along. But first, the DNR will release a final EIS draft if a major analysis is not triggered by public comment. The final impact statement will also be submitted for public comment.

Del Rae Williams, Moorhead mayor and Diversion Authority chairwoman, said there were no surprises in the current environmental review, and though there are still many steps that need to be taken, she expects action on the project could happen as soon as next spring.

Landwehr said he had not had a chance to look at any written comments, but expected more to come in by the 4:30 p.m. deadline Sept. 27.

To read the DNR's draft review, go to https://bit.ly/2PHPmwL.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also recently released its own draft EIS on the project, which can be read at https://bit.ly/2MCSQTC.

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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