- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Army Corps of Engineers announced plans Tuesday to fund the final $6.3 million needed to complete the planning, engineering and design phase for the Red River diversion project.

That’s an important step for a project that local supporters have sought to relieve regular flooding in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., area. The cities have suffered or been threatened by major flooding in four of the last five years.

The funding news came as President Barack Obama’s released his 2015 budget proposal. The blueprint, which Congress is all but certain to change, does not include any funding for construction of the diversion. Lawmakers said that means they will have to work harder to keep the diversion project moving forward.

“We have a real challenge,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. He added that Obama “could have and should have” included funding.

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp did not criticize Obama and said her focus would shift to making sure Congress passed a water projects bill later this year that includes authorization for about $800 million in construction costs for the diversion.

She said she will do everything she can to “get the project built.”

“Flooding is too often a reality in the Fargo-Moorhead region, and we need to do everything we can to protect North Dakotans’ homes and families from these devastating disasters,” Heitkamp said.

The Corps announced it would pay for the diversion in its 2014 fiscal year work plan, which was released Tuesday. The work plan also includes about $2.5 million for a sanitary sewer expansion project in the Minot, N.D., area.

Fargo and Moorhead have dealt with major flooding or threats of major flooding in four out of the last five years. Local officials believe the diversion could prevent costly damage and calm near annual fears of damage.

The funding announced Tuesday will pay for the completion of the diversion project’s design stage. The next step would be implementing and building out the Corps’ plans. That requires congressional authorization and then a separate spending bill.

Congress appears on track to deliver the authorization. The House and Senate are negotiating a compromise water projects bill that will blend dueling House and Senate versions of the legislation. Both include authorization for about $800 million in federal funding for the diversion. Congress could then pass separate spending bills through its appropriations process.

The additional diversion funding announced Tuesday will bring the federal government’s commitment to nearly $40 million. The overall project is expected to cost about $2 billion, with a mix of state, federal and local funds paying for it.

North Dakota’s congressional delegation and other supporters have pushed for the 36-mile diversion project to protect the heavily populated Fargo-Moorhead area. The project has opponents, including a group of upstream farmers, homeowners and businesses that have said they’re opposed to a staging area that would be needed to hold water in times of serious flooding. They say the project could also disrupt their communities.

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