MOORHEAD, Minn. — Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum agreed on Wednesday to form a 16-member task force to work out differences between the two states over a massive flood-control project to protect the Fargo-Moorhead area.
The governors will serve as co-chairs of the task force, and each will appoint eight representatives from their respective states. The task force is not meant to replace the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority, which is overseeing the $2.2 billion project, but rather facilitate collaboration between the states, the governors said.
“Failure's not an option,” Dayton said. “There’s got to be flood protection for this growing region, and the people around it.”
The two governors have been speaking since a federal judge in September halted construction on the project that would divert floodwaters around the metro area, pending the outcome of a years-long lawsuit. The judge urged the parties in the lawsuit to resolve their differences through negotiation.
The governors agreed that the task force must come up with a solution that will be able to obtain a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and that will satisfy upstream opponents of the project. The DNR earlier denied a permit for a dam that would divert floodwater into a diversion channel.
“Without a Minnesota permit, this project doesn’t go forward,” Burgum said.
The Richland-Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, representing upstream counties, filed the original suit against the diversion in 2013. The DNR filed suit earlier this year against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is building the dam that would span the Red River and extend into Minnesota.
North Dakota regulators approved the diversion project, but the DNR has refused to provide a permit for the project, citing state policies on removing undeveloped land from the floodplain.
The Corps had maintained that, as a federal agency, it wasn’t subject to state environmental regulation.
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, chairman of the Diversion Authority, said he was happy with Wednesday’s announcement of a two-state task force. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said. “This is where I hoped things would head. I’m optimistic that we can find a plan that is permitable in Minnesota.”
Dayton met on Wednesday morning with representatives of governments from Minnesota counties and communities impacted by the project. He then met with Burgum and staff members from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The two governors had lunch together, and they announced the agreement in a news conference afterwards.
“Some of the people I met with in Minnesota earlier today felt they hadn’t been part of the process up until recently or their voices hadn’t been heard,” Dayton said. “They want to know that their concerns will be … taken into account.”
Dayton said he hoped the task force would complete its work and make recommendations within 60 days.
“I don’t want this to drag on,” he said. “I do want to give people the chance to be involved and have it be collaborative.”
Dayton’s Wednesday meeting with Minnesota officials and his later meeting with Burgum were closed to the public and news media. A reporter tried to attend Dayton’s meeting with Minnesota officials, but was asked to leave. Representatives of the governor said the meeting was not subject to open meetings laws because they ensured no government body had enough representatives in attendance to constitute a quorum.
Before Wednesday’s meetings, Matthew Von Pinnon, editor of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, wrote the offices of both governors, urging them to keep all meetings about the diversion open to the public and press.
“The FM diversion is Fargo-Moorhead's largest-ever project, North Dakota's largest-ever public project and has immense taxpayer interest on both sides of the Red River,” he wrote. “If any meetings should remain open to the public and press, it is ones concerning this project.”
The Forum is owned by Forum Communications, which also owns Forum News Service.