Opponents of the $2.75 billion Fargo-Moorhead Diversion are “consulting up.”
Prof. Nicholas Pinter and an associate are joining the team of Gerald W. Von Korff, an attorney for the Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority. The organization, which represents Richland County, North Dakota, and Wilkin County, Minnesota, has long been in litigation against the project.
“We’re trying to assist our attorney in garnering as much information as helpful in swaying the administrative law judge,” said Lyle Hovland, vice chair of the upstream group and a Wilkin County commissioner.
The joint powers authority, with assistance from the MnDak Upstream Coalition, hired Pinter and his associate.
“Our attorney is one of the best lawyers on this topic,” former Wilkin County Attorney Tim Fox said. “It had been suggested that we get an expert. We have found an excellent expert witness who will be able to pin back the layers of this horrendous project, what is currently Plan B, and explain why it is an incredibly bad idea. It flies in the face of all the ideas for what an appropriate plan should be.”
The next court date for diversion opponents and supporters has not yet been confirmed. It is expected to take place in summer 2020, although a spring date is possible.
Von Korff was unavailable for comment.
Pinter’s research on flood hydrology, floodplains and other earth-surface processes caught the attention of upstream leaders. He is the associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis.
“His big thing has been that these levees and dams aren’t the way to go,” Richland County Commissioner Nathan Berseth said. “It’s this 1940s mentality, opting for a quick fix rather than looking at the whole. There’s got to be a basin-wide look rather than just at any individual area.”
During a Monday, Nov. 11 presentation in Christine, North Dakota, Pinter discussed his work in regions including the Sacramento Valley, California, and along the Rhine’s riverbanks, Europe.
“In most of the world, the trend is that people are giving more room back to the river and taking things off the floodplain,” Pinter said.
Residents from both the upstream and Fargo-Moorhead regions participated in discussion during the Christine meeting.
“We received a lot of good questions,” said Sid Berg, a Richland County commissioner and joint powers authority member. “Those questions, we found, are the same as what (the JPA’s) been dealing with and the questions we’ve asked.”
Education is the top priority for Berg and other upstream leaders. It’s about getting the word out to Department of Natural Resources personnel, leaders in Fargo, leaders with the Diversion Authority and citizens.
“We had a guy from Fargo attending, who told us that 98 percent of people in Fargo don’t know what’s going on. They don’t know anything about anything until they have to pay out of pocket,” Berg said.
In January 2019, Berg publicly called for citizens to advocate for a forensic audit concerning the city of Fargo and the Diversion Authority.
“What rights do they have to do this, to take our land, to take properties and take them off the tax roll?” Berg asked. “The city is $1.8 billion in the hole, they’re looking to go into debt another $4-6 billion and they’re expecting money will come from something other than taxpayers?”
Nearly a year later, Berg’s attitude about an audit has not changed.
“Write to your congressman, write to your senator, ask to have it done. Ask why it can’t be done. Because right now, this is robbery. It’s not protection of our residents or our county. It’s a shame what they’re doing with the funding,” he said.
The Christine presentation concluded with Pinter’s “smell test” for determining when structural flood control is necessary. It happens to protect infrastructure that is concentrated, high-value and pre-existing.
“Dr. Pinter hasn’t come to any conclusions yet about the F-M Diversion,” said attorney Cash Aaland, Fargo. “But it you apply this test to the diversion, it fails all three criteria. Over half of the project would protect sparsely developed farm land. It’s not high value and it’s not concentrated.”
Observing that upstream concerns do not receive much attention from the Fargo media, Berg continued to stress the need for education.
“A levee is only as good as the time it holds,” Berg said. “And it will not hold forever. I would not want to live behind a levee. The levees in Comstock and Hickson, should they breach — and they will — it would be disastrous, life-threatening. This isn’t about flood protection. It’s about economic growth and city development.”
It is incredible, Fox said, that upstream communities are in the position to get the Fargo-Moorhead metroplex the most appropriate flood protection.
“I would think everybody would want to come up with the best flood protection project possible. But they’re just interested in the best development project. Those ideas are inconsistent with each other. We need to help educate them,” Fox said.
Upstream leaders are once again preparing for the long run. Next year will mark eight years since litigation against the diversion project began.
“Dr. Pinter said plainly to us, ‘If I didn’t believe in what you’re doing, I wouldn’t be here,’” Hovland said.