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Preferred method named for Red River Valley water project

By Blake Nicholson
Bismarck, North Dakota (AP) 1-08

The best way to move Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota would be a pipeline from the existing McClusky Canal in central North Dakota, federal and state officials have concluded.

The $660 million pipeline proposal, along with a proposed $110 million treatment plant, is far from final. The secretary of the interior must still sign off on the idea, and Congress must still fund it. Opponents could challenge it in court.

The Red River Valley Water Supply Project is aimed at ensuring a future water supply for the valley, especially in times of severe drought. If a drought occurred similar to the one that hit the region during the 1930s, when there was no flow in the Red River at Fargo for nearly five straight months, it would take 1,200 truckloads of water per day to supply the city’s basic needs, according to the final project environmental report compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the state of North Dakota.

“Given the predicted future population growth in the valley, the projected water supply shortages will become even greater in the future,” said the report, which was compiled after a comment period that included nine public hearings.

The population of North Dakota’s 13 eastern counties and the neighboring Minnesota communities of Breckenridge, Moorhead and East Grand Forks is expected to grow from the current 315,522 to 479,252 in 2050, the report said.

The bureau and the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which represented North Dakota, studied six water supply alternatives for the region. Three options involved moving Missouri River water east, with estimated construction costs ranging from $660 million to $1.1 billion.

The least expensive, the bureau’s preferred method, would bury a pipeline to move water from the McClusky Canal to Lake Ashtabula north of Valley City. The Missouri River water then would move through the Sheyenne River to the Red River. The project also would include a pipeline from Fargo south to the Wahpeton area. The Red River flows north.

The McClusky Canal, which links with Lake Audubon on the Missouri River in central North Dakota, was built years ago as part of the unfinished Garrison Diversion project, an effort to use Missouri River water for irrigation and other purposes. Irrigation is no longer proposed.

The Bureau of Reclamation proposes a $110 million treatment plant adjacent to the McClusky Canal to reduce the risk of transferring invasive species into Canadian waters.

“The treatment process that’s been selected ... is the one Manitoba suggested,” said Rick Nelson, chief of the Red River Division of the bureau’s regional office in Bismarck. “They told us, ‘here’s the treatment goals that we want you to meet.’ We said, ‘OK, we’ll do that.”’

Tristan Landry, spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Washington, did not immediately have a comment Tuesday.

The Three Affiliated Tribes in western North Dakota has opposed the diversion of Missouri River water to the east. Tribal Chairman Marcus Wells Jr. has said the tribe was not properly consulted on the plan, and that it might damage American Indian cultural sites and hurt tribal water supply projects. A spokeswoman for Wells did not return telephone calls seeking comment Tuesday.

The bureau report said little documented information exists on Indian cultural resources in the project area, and that potential tribal water rights are outside the scope of the study.

The bureau report also said the project is not likely to hurt any protected, endangered or threatened wildlife species, including the bald eagle, least tern, piping plover and Western prairie fringed orchid. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concurred with that finding.

The secretary of the interior could pick a different option, though Nelson said that has not happened in other studies.

If the secretary goes with the bureau’s recommendation or picks one of the other two alternatives that involve moving Missouri River water east, it would be up to Congress to fund it.

“That’s one of the big hoops,” said Todd Sando, assistant state Water Commission engineer.

The project would be paid with a mix of federal, state and local money. Last year, the North Dakota Legislature agreed to provide up to $100 million in state money for a Red River Valley water supply initiative.

The treatment plant would be funded entirely with federal money, since it would be necessary to meet treaty requirements with Canada, Nelson said.