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Missouri River diversion work underway, with plans to bring water to eastern North Dakota

Work continues on a project to bring water from the Missouri River to eastern North Dakota. This summer's drought doesn't have anything to do with the timing, but it shows the importance of it, one project leader says.

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Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford signs his name on a segment of pipe before crews lower it into the ground near Carrington, N.D., on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service
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GRAND FORKS — This summer’s drought and the emerging environmental threats posed by global warming might underscore the need for a backup water source for Fargo and the Grand Cities, but the $1.22 billion plan to siphon water from the Missouri River into eastern North Dakota rivers predates both.

The Red River Valley Water Supply Project aims to be a 165-mile failsafe for cities in eastern North Dakota if or when another Dust Bowl-style drought rolls through the region and to free up more water for industrial concerns. The project would lay a buried pipeline from the Missouri about 5 miles south of Washburn, North Dakota, to the Sheyenne River a few miles north of Lake Ashtabula. From there, the Baldhill Dam would regulate how much water flows into the remainder of the Sheyenne and, ultimately, into the Red River.

The pipeline itself — rather than a series of canals, for instance — has been in the works since about 2000, but civic leaders have been worrying about water delivery to easterly cities for decades.

“It was identified since statehood that eastern North Dakota would have times of excess and of no flow,” Grand Forks City Council member Ken Vein said. Vein represents Grand Forks County on the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District’s board and is chairman of its engineering and operations committee. The conservancy district — a state agency created by the Legislature that’s often referred to as just the “Garrison Diversion” — is leading the project.

“And therefore we’re building flood protection projects at the same time as we’re building water supply projects,” Vein said. “We’re just very susceptible and vulnerable at both ends.”

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Vein said diversion leaders have been trying to get the project underway well before this summer’s drought — “you don’t wait for a drought” — and that the looming problems posed by climate change, which include harsher and more frequent droughts, make the project more critical than ever.

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Troy Becker / Forum News Service

A billion-plus

Most of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks’ water comes from the Red Lake River, not the Red River, but the Red nonetheless is an alternate or backup source of municipal water if the Red Lake ever starts to dry up. The water supply project, then, would be a sort of backup to the cities’ backup because it aims to keep the Red topped off.

Workers started building the intake from the Missouri River and the outlet into the Sheyenne this spring and, earlier this month, broke ground on the pipeline itself. But state and city officials have only set aside about $119 million of the project’s $1.22 billion estimated cost, the bulk of which comes from the state’s coffers. The plan is, ultimately, to have the state foot about 75% of that bill and cities that would draw from the pipeline pay for the remaining 25%.

Grand Forks and a handful of other large municipalities have volunteered to temporarily foot the bill for smaller and less monied cities’ portions of that 25%. Some of those smaller cities draw groundwater, but many bigger cities — such as Fargo and Grand Forks — use exclusively surface water, which means they need the backup supply more urgently than their smaller counterparts.

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Gary Rosenau, who farms near Carrington, N.D., signs his name to a segment of the Red River Water Supply Project pipeline during a groundbreaking celebration on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. Next to Rosenau's signature, an attendee has written "After 70 years of thirst, finally a drink of water," reflecting the pipeline's long and meandering path from idea to reality. Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

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In Bismarck, state legislators have apportioned a total of $17 million for the project in 2017, $36.4 million in 2019, and $50 million last spring. But Duane DeKrey, the Garrison Diversion’s general manager, said climate change hasn’t spurred North Dakota lawmakers to fund the project. The state has finished putting together funding packages for flood control plans in Fargo and Minot, DeKrey said, and is now turning its attention to drought safeguards.

Still, drought cycles have highlighted the need for such a project. DeKrey noted that Devils Lake, which spills into nearby Stump Lake and ultimately the Sheyenne River, is currently only about 2 feet higher than the minimum levels needed to pump water into the Sheyenne and, ultimately, into the Red.

“The drought and falling Devils Lake has definitely put a new view on the speed at which the Red River project needs to be funded,” he said.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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