U.S. Sen. John Hoeven provided a spark for flood-fatigued officials in his home state Monday, announcing that a measure that authorizes a proposed Red River diversion project should reach the Senate floor in April or May.
The North Dakota Republican said language for the proposal was approved last week by the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He believes the bill to approve the nearly $2 billion project will pass the Senate, and then it would go to the House. Authorization means construction can begin, but the federal funding will need to be appropriated each year to cover the cost of construction, which is shared by local, state and federal governments.
"This was a huge hurdle for us," Hoeven told a group of more than two-dozen federal, state and local officials who gathered to plan for what could be the Fargo area's fourth major spring flood in five years. "We've taken a big step toward getting the diversion authorized at the federal level."
The White House has signed off on a 36-mile diversion channel that would move water from the north-flowing river around the Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., metropolitan area of about 200,000 people. But the project needs approval from Congress.
"Sen. Hoeven, thank you for the good news," North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple told his fellow Republican.
But there are unanswered questions about funding. The original plan called for the federal government to pay $785 million for its share of the diversion, leaving a $985 million tab for state and local entities. Some North Dakota lawmakers have been unwilling to back to the project until they get a federal commitment.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker bristled Monday when asked about legislators and others who don't think the diversion is needed.
"It's not needed? These people must be living in a cocoon as far as I'm concerned," Walaker said. "Come on guys, get your head out of the sand. You have to understand what this is about."
Dalrymple said he expects a provision in a state bill that wouldn't allow money to go toward home buyouts or the diversion project to be changed. The city of Fargo has been in the process of buying out homes in low-lying areas for several years, depending on the money it has available.
"I think the (state) Senate is going to alter the language in the bill to make it clear that Fargo funds can be used for whatever purpose they want to use them for," Dalrymple said.
The National Weather Service said the Red River has 50 percent chance of reaching 38 feet in the Fargo area — 20 feet above flood stage. The top five crests in the area were 40.84 feet in 2009, 39.72 feet in 1997, 39.10 feet in 1897, 38.81 feet in 2011 and 37.34 feet in 1969.
Area officials feel they can handle a 38-foot flood without any damage to structures. Fargo has spent $100 million on flood protection since the 2009 flood, buying out hundreds of homes in low-lying areas and building about 20 levees. Moorhead has invested more than $88 million on similar projects in the last four years.
Even so, city and county officials outlined plans Monday to fill more than 1 million sandbags when "Sandbag Central" opens on April 3. Fargo is moving its garbage trucks out of a storage warehouse to make room for three machines that can fill 5,000 bags an hour.
Walaker said the preparation and cleanup takes a toll on residents.
"This is getting to be an almost ridiculous process that we have to go through each and every year," Walaker said. "People aren't getting a rest. We got one in 2012 and I was hoping we would get one in 2013."
Dalrymple told officials that the state will provide enough money to help with flood protection and expressed confidence in the city's ability to hold back high water.
"Fargo has the best flood-fighting team in the United States," the governor said.
Between early and late March, the weather service increased its crest prediction by 4 feet partly because of two late winter storms that added to an above-normal snowpack.
Dalrymple said he was hoping to see black dirt — instead of snow — as he flew over the eastern part of the state Monday.
"Unfortunately I couldn't find any," he said.
Follow Dave Kolpack on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/davekolpackap.