Drought plans weighed

Post Date: Feb 12 2008

The cost of making sure water flows in the Red River Valley during times of severe drought is enough to dry the throat of water users who will foot the bill: $660 million or $1 billion.

The state of North Dakota is on record supporting the option with the lower price tag, which would use remnants of an abandoned irrigation project.

But some influential voices are saying not so fast even as federal officials approach a March 27 decision deadline.

The so-called preferred option, favored by both state officials and a federal environmental assessment, would use a huge pump to draw water from Lake Audubon and send it down the 60-mile McClusky Canal in central North Dakota.

From there, the water would continue its trip to the east through a 125-mile pipeline that would empty into the Sheyenne River, which joins the Red River north of Fargo-Moorhead.

The other option, with a price tag of almost $500 million more, would build a pipeline south of Bismarck running roughly parallel to Interstate 94 to Fargo.

Both options would filter and treat the Missouri River water before it enters the Red River watershed, which drains into Hudson Bay, in an effort to address Canadian concerns about transferring micro-organisms.

Proponents of the long pipeline option, including former Gov. Bill Guy and Sen. Tom Fischer, R-Fargo, argue that it would be the best solution for the long term, and would better address Canadian concerns.

A pipeline also would lose less water to evaporation or seepage, making it an easier sell to downstream states such as Missouri, Fischer said. He isn't convinced the ongoing maintenance costs of the canal, subject to slumping and requiring fencing and roads for maintenance, have been fully tallied.

There are questions upon questions, said Fischer, an influential lawmaker on water issues. This is not an attempt to stop anything. All I'm asking for is more information.

Dave Koland, manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which administers a water authority of Red River Valley counties, said many would be happy to embrace the pipeline alternative if someone finds the money.

Fischer notes that the energy boom is filling state coffers, and wonders whether water development promoters gave up too easily in pushing for what he considers the best long-term option.

We can make the Red River Valley's economic future certain with water, he said. That, in turn, benefits the entire state.

Count Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker among the skeptics that the state could find more money for the project. Fargo is a central member of the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, the local body working to bring water to the Red River Valley.

We have to come up with the money, said Walaker, who said he likes the pipeline alternative if funding can be found. Half a billion dollars, we're talking real money.

Walaker said he met last week with the North Dakota congressional delegation, and came away with the understanding that the level of federal financial support would not increase to accommodate the pipeline alternative.

They do not feel that's possible, he said.

So far, officials at the federal, state and local level have agreed upon an equal cost-sharing arrangement, with each level of government picking up one-third of the cost.

For the preferred option, that would translate into a federal grant of $124.5 million for a water treatment plant, as well as a $178.5 million federal loan, leaving $357 million to be picked up by state and local governments, said Signe Snortland, manager of the Red River Valley water supply project for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in Bismarck.

The North Dakota Legislature has authorized up to $100 million in aid to help meet Red River Valley water-supply needs. Walaker said the local governments will ask for more state support, and predicts Fargo's share would be about $100 million.

The city long has sought a solution that would not add more than $10 a month to a residential water user's bill, a target the preferred option would allow, Koland said.

The preferred option also offers the most environmental benefits, including replenishing the Sheyenne River in times of drought. Lake Ashtabula, north of Valley City, would serve as a storage reservoir. The pipeline alternative has no storage reservoir, Koland said.

Still, he said, time remains to discuss the two options, both vetted by public meetings and comment periods.

We kind of have to go through a circular process, he said. It sometimes seems we just go around and around doing this, but I think it's just part of the education process.

In the end, the huge gap in costs has been persuasive, Koland added. The bottom line is everyone has selected a preferred alternative that we think we can afford.

In an interview, Fischer countered, We don't need the $500 million in one year or one biennium. Among other mechanisms, the state's bonding authority could be tapped, he said.

The thing is, is it important enough to the entire state as well as eastern North Dakota to continue the economic success that we've had? Fischer asked. Because it all depends on water in the end.

Recent history in the Red River Valley, with the devastating 1997 still a fresh memory, has conditioned people to worry more about too much water than not enough. But the river stopped flowing for more than 800 days between 1932 and 1940, Walaker said.

If that were too happen today, federal officials calculated that 1,200 water trucks a day would have to haul in water to meet Fargo's indoor water needs and nobody could say where the trucks would come from, or the treated water to fill them, Snortland said.

Everybody understands the need for the project, Walaker said.

About the project

The preferred option for meeting the Red River Valley's future water needs would use features of the defunct Garrison Diversion Unit irrigation project, including:

- The Snake Creek Pumping Plant, built at a cost of almost $21 million, which would pump water from Lake Audubon, adjacent to Lake Sakakawea, on the Missouri River.

- The 60-mile McClusky Canal, 15 feet deep, built at a cost of almost $95 million.

Their current combined annual operating cost is almost $1.4 million. If used, the federal government would be reimbursed $11 million for their construction costs and $90,000 a year for operating costs.