FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says opponents of a Red River diversion should not prevail on allegations that the agency failed to follow federal environmental law when it analyzed the upstream effects of the project, an issue that could delay the $2 billion channel.

The 36-mile channel is designed to move water around the flood-prone Fargo metropolitan area, but would need a staging area south of town to store water in times of serious flooding. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton has said the plan sacrifices the well-being of mostly rural residents in order to benefit the economic development of south Fargo.

The Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, representing about 20 upstream cities and townships in North Dakota and Minnesota, filed a lawsuit in August 2013 opposing the diversion and asking the corps to come up with a cheaper project that doesn't flood farmland. The group filed a motion in June asking a judge to rule in their favor on whether or not the corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, by not considering upstream impacts.

In its response filed Friday, the corps says it fulfilled NEPA requirements by evaluating five other diversion alternatives, working with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and other agencies on an environmental impact study, and modifying the plan based on complaints primarily from the state of Minnesota.

Gerald Von Korff, attorney for Richland/Wilkin group, said Monday he was still reviewing documents filed Friday by the corps and city of Oxbow. Carol Draper, an attorney representing the corps, did not return a phone message left Monday by The Associated Press.

Von Korff did say that if the upstream group wins the NEPA argument, it would likely "bring the project to a screeching halt" until a new environmental study could be completed. Backers of the project are hoping to start construction in 2016.

The corps says in its memorandum that it has responded to more than 30 suggestions from Minnesota, including minimizing impacts to fish passage and spawning, modifications to dams at the towns of Christine and Hickson, dealing with zebra mussels, and analyzing the risk of catastrophic failure.

"Thus it is clear that far from being ignored by the corps, Minnesota's comments were fully addressed," the corps' document states. It goes on to say that some of the ideas by Minnesota resulted in changes to the plan, such as how frequently the channel will operate during times of high water.

The Richland/Wilkin group says a better option is a proposed 25-mile channel on the Minnesota side they say should have been selected over the larger project on the North Dakota side. The Minnesota project would not require intentional flooding of upstream residents in the two states, the group says.

The corps says in its response that the channel around Fargo is needed in order to "diminish flood damages, reduce the risk of loss of life, and lessen the need for emergency flood fighting measures."

The corps says the current plan would protect about 6,600 more residents and about 3,000 more structures than the channel on the Minnesota side, and takes about 50 more square miles off the flood plain.

 

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