- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - A diversion project that could relieve the chronic flood threat in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, was included Thursday in a massive water projects bill approved by Congress and headed to the White House.

The Senate voted 91-7 to approve the Water Resources and Development Act, after the House passed the legislation on Tuesday. It includes authorization for up to $846.7 million in federal funds for a diversion project in the Red River valley.

Fargo and Moorhead have seen major flooding or the threat of it in four of the last five years, and the diversion is seen by many as a long-term solution.

North Dakota’s senators celebrated Thursday’s vote.

“It was a long haul, but we finally succeeded in authorizing permanent flood protection for more than 200,000 North Dakotans,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat.

Republican Sen. John Hoeven said authorization would allow supporters to pursue federal construction funding and to get the project started. He said the Army Corps of Engineers now needs to consider ways to reduce the threat of flooding in Red River Valley areas upstream.

Congress must separately pass legislation that pays for the project. Opponents of the diversion said Thursday that North Dakota and Minnesota residents should be worried about picking up the tab.

“If and when funding does arrive, it’ll never come close the federal share of more than $800 million,” said Nathan Berseth, a spokesman for diversion opponents who have filed a federal lawsuit in an effort to get the Corps to consider a cheaper proposal that doesn’t flood farmland.

The Red River diversion is one of 34 Army Corps of Engineers projects authorized by the water projects bill. Besides authorizing projects, the bill includes a provision that forbids the Corps from charging residents and businesses for using Missouri River reservoir water. Lawmakers in North and South Dakota had fought to include the language.

The bill also makes changes to how future projects can seek funding and sets specific time and cost limits for studies on potential projects. It eliminates unnecessary Corps reviews and speeds up environmental reviews for potential projects.