- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources signed off Wednesday on an environmental review of a Red River diversion project around the flood-prone cities of Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota.

The DNR said the review meets all legal requirements and backers of the project can begin trying to secure necessary permits. DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the findings are not “an endorsement or approval” of the $2.1 billion channel and cautioned that several questions need to be answered before construction can begin, particularly on how the project will affect upstream residents.

Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority Chairman Darrel Vanyo said his group has been working clossely with the DNR and “never sensed there was a showstopper” to keep the project from moving forward.

“We’re happy it’s behind us because it’s just another step in the process,” Vanyo said. “Now we can focus on the permitting, which would be the big issue.”

The 30-mile long diversion channel would require a massive staging area south of the metro area that would be flooded in times of high water. It would stretch from Cass County, where Fargo is located, south into Richland County and store about 33,000 acres of water. A group of upstream residents opposed to the project is pushing for a cheaper plan that wouldn’t flood farmland.

The two cities dealt with three straight years of high water beginning with a record crest in 2009 that destroyed about 100 structures and took a massive sandbagging effort to save the city. Fargo last experienced significant flooding in 2013.

A spokesman for Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, who has been critical of the project, said Wednesday that the Democrat is traveling overseas and deferring all comments to Landwehr.

The diversion authority is hoping to start construction this year on the first phase of the project, which is a gated inlet structure. Landwehr would not estimate how long it would take for DNR to decide on its permit.

“I can say that this permit application is quite complex and will require careful consideration of both policy and technical questions,” he said.

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