Cities & Counties Blast Corps of Engineers

     MINNEAPOLIS (CN) – Local governments sued the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming a $2 billion water diversion project will flood “vast reaches” of prime farmland in Minnesota and North Dakota to protect areas slotted for development.
     The Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Authority, a Minnesota-North Dakota Joint Powers Authority, sued the Army Corps of Engineers and its top national and regional officials, in Federal Court.
     The Joint Powers Authority includes more than 20 cities and townships as well as Wilkin County, Minn., and Richland County, N. Dak.
     The Corps of Engineers estimated in 2009 that the Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project would cost $400 million, but its cost already has ballooned to $2 billion, the plaintiffs say.
     “The cost of the project exploded exponentially because project sponsors sought to expand dramatically the scope of the project to extend protection unnecessarily to over 50 square miles of undeveloped natural floodplain,” the lawsuit states. “Project cost was further increased by proposing protection at a level of 60,000-66,000 cubic feet per second, more than double the peak flow actually experienced at Fargo at any time in the past century.
     “After expanding the scope of the project in this way, the Corps of Engineers discovered that this expansion of project mission would significantly increase the flow of water downstream (in the absence of other mitigating measures), causing the flooding of communities downstream.
     “Instead of scaling back the project to its original mission, project sponsors and Corps of Engineers (USACE) decided to divert the excess water by constructing a new Class I earthen dam in Minnesota and North Dakota, running across the Red River upstream of Fargo and Moorhead, intentionally to flood vast reaches of upland upstream of Richland and Wilkin Counties. This new design would intentionally flood large areas of valuable high ground, including communities and prime farm land in order to provide unnecessary flood protection to natural undeveloped floodplain and promote future development in areas vulnerable to flooding.”
     The Joint Powers Authority claims that since the plan was submitted to Congress it has been substantially modified, failing to reflect critical features of the project or address practical alternatives.
     “This action challenges the Report of the Chief Engineer US Army Corps of Engineers (Chief’s Report), and accompanying Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), because it proposes a costly and wasteful plan of flood control for the Fargo-Moorhead area, but fails to advise Congress of suitable alternative plans of flood control exists which are far less costly, capable of more rapid implementation, and which cause far less negative consequences,” the complaint states.
     “The local sponsors of the project, particularly Fargo and Cass County, favored an engineering intensive costly diversion project that would encircle large portions of Fargo’s undeveloped flood plain, despite the USACE’s determination that this configuration was more costly and afforded a negative return on investment.”
     The complaint adds: “In October, 2009, after further study, the Corps of Engineers presented 11 flood control options, including two levee options and 9 diversion options, ranging in cost from $800 million to $1.5 billion.
     “In order to justify this more costly approach, the local sponsors, and then ultimately the Corps of Engineers, developed a variety of strategies to skew the cost-benefit analysis in ways which overstate the benefits of the Locally Preferred Plan and understate the costs. They counted the potential increment in value of floodplain which would be ‘protected’ from flooding, even though the protection of that land is inconsistent with state and national floodplain strategy. This practice tilts the benefit-cost analysis toward structural projects and fails to account for the ‘residual’ risk associated with its projects – that is the potentially catastrophic risk of flooding if projects fail, if flood waters exceed design capabilities, or if changes in the watershed reduce the level of protection provided. The Chief’s Report and accompanying EIS fails to make transparent to Congress that the inflation in project costs and the selection of the Locally Preferred Plan rest upon the future development of natural floodplain and the EIS fails to describe the environmental and cost implications of pursuing that strategy.”
     The Richland/Wilkin Joint Powers Authority includes more than 20 cities, townships, and a school district in addition to the county members.
     “The members, and their citizens will suffer direct and indirect irreparable harm, because the locally preferred plan recommended by the Chief’s Report will dam the Red River causing repeated flooding of lands within both counties. That harm includes unnecessary repeated intentional flooding of large expanses of each County, the impairment of tax base counties, townships, cities, and school districts, the interference with governmental infrastructure, loss of property values, and interference with local planning and zoning,” the complaint states.
     The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the environmental analyses submitted to Congress violate the National Environmental Policy Act and that the approval of the Environmental Impact Statement violate the Administrative Procedures Act.
     They are represented by Gerald Von Korff with Rinke Noonan, of St. Cloud.

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