- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - A federal judge handed opponents of a planned Red River diversion project a victory Wednesday by halting construction on a ring levee south of the Fargo metropolitan area until an environmental review is completed.

A group representing about 20 cities and townships in North Dakota and Minnesota filed a lawsuit in August 2013 against the diversion and later added a motion to stop construction of the dike that is meant to protect structures in Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke. Those communities are located upstream in an area that would be flooded as a staging area for the diversion in times of high water.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim of Minnesota said the temporary injunction is appropriate because the Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority ignored the law by starting the project before the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources could complete its study. The diversion authority had argued the ring dike was separate from the overall project.

“When considering a project of this size, scope and potential environmental impact, the review process must be completed first,” Tunheim said.

Nathan Berseth, a board member of the Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, which asked for the temporary injunction, said: “The bottom line is that it’s affecting Minnesota state law and the judge agreed with what we said all along.”

While Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke have experienced flooding, Tunheim said, those communities would not face the same risk as the Fargo-Moorhead area unless the diversion is built. He also said the interruption may result in higher construction costs, continued risk of flooding and uncertainty for homeowners in the area, but added that the DNR review should be completed soon and the delay “need not be a lengthy one.”

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, a diversion authority member, said the group might appeal.

“We have to sit down and talk to the judge a little bit to understand the scope of what he wants,” Mahoney said. “There’s going to be some discussion. We have 10 days to figure things out.”

Authority chairman Darrell Vanyo said he was surprised.

“There’s disappointment, I can certainly say that,” Vanyo said. “I didn’t think it would go this way.”

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