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Cheaper option feasible for RRV Water Supply Project, officials say

Fargo Forum
By Mike Nowatzki

BISMARCK — Officials spearheading a decades-old effort to divert Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota during droughts said they’ve revived a cheaper water intake option as their preferred alternative and will scale back their request for state funding in light of slumping tax revenues.

But they said they hope lawmakers will still provide enough money to start construction on the Red River Valley Water Supply Project during the 2017-19 biennium so it can be grandfathered in before new federal regulations that could delay the project take effect.

“There is a great risk here involved with regulation changes,” Ken Vein, chairman of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, said Thursday, Sept. 22, during a joint meeting of the State Water Commission and the Legislature’s Water Topics Overview Committee.

The project would pipe water about 160 miles from the Missouri River near Washburn to an outlet at Baldhill Creek, a tributary of the Sheyenne River, which connects to the Red River.

Early this year, a study identified horizontal collector wells as the best option for taking water from the Missouri River, at an estimated cost of $424 million. Project officials adopted it as the preferred alternative, in large part because it wouldn’t require federal permits.

But Vein said the project’s legal consultants have since advised that a conventional intake estimated at $187 million — an option that project officials had earlier written off — would likely qualify for a nationwide permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers without having to undergo another extensive environmental review.

“This now gives us options we never had before and the ability to save money,” Vein said, noting the horizontal wells are still the second choice.

A conventional intake puts the project’s revised cost at about $1 billion, based on a system supplying 150 cubic feet of water per second. So far, the project has about 147 cfs in signed or planned commitments from communities and water districts, including Grand Forks and Jamestown. Fargo will vote on its commitment Monday, said Mayor Tim Mahoney, who chairs the 13-county Lake Agassiz Water Authority, the project’s local sponsor.

The 2015 Legislature provided $12.3 million for planning and design in 2015-17, and LAWA kicked in about $1.4 million. Lawmakers also approved legislative intent to fund the project at $150 million per biennium over the next eight years, for $600 million total.

But Vein said project officials know that’s no longer realistic, given the state’s budget situation with depressed oil and farm commodity prices cutting into tax revenues. They plan to seek $30 million to $50 million for 2017-19, which would allow for design to continue and construction to start on the intake, pipe and outlet.

“It keeps our project moving forward,” Vein said.

Waiting longer increases the chances that federal regulations such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Waters of the U.S.” rule will delay the project, officials said. A 13-state lawsuit, led by North Dakota, prompted a preliminary injunction in August 2015 to block the rule’s implementation.

Rep. Jim Schmidt, R-Huff, who chairs the water topics committee, cast doubts that the current cost-sharing arrangement will continue at 90 percent state, 10 percent local, saying there have been discussions to reduce the state’s share to 80 percent or 75 percent. Others raised concerns about legal challenges arising after construction begins, as happened with the Northwest Area Water Supply Project.

Vein said he hopes the local cost share will remain at 10 percent at least through the design phase, fearing smaller users will drop out if upfront costs are too high. Communities and rural water systems have until Oct. 1 to commit to the project.

Mahoney said an 80-20 split is “reasonable” for the construction phase, currently slated for 2019-2027.

The project would serve about half the state’s population, and the economic impact of not doing it is estimated at $20 billion during a 10-year drought, Vein noted.

“It’s got huge financial significance to the state,” he said.

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