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Federal judge: Construction of ring levee around Fargo area must stay on hold

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FARGO, North Dakota — Construction of a ring levee that's related to a Red River diversion project around the Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota area must remain on hold, a federal judge from Minnesota ruled Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge John Tunheim last month put levee construction south of the metropolitan area on hold until the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources completes its study on the nearly $2 billion diversion channel, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed by upstream residents. The levee would protect structures in the Oxbow, Hickson and Bakke, which is part of a staging area that would be flooded when the diversion channel is needed.

The Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Authority asked the judge to reconsider because it said the delay will result in more than $1 million of additional construction costs and puts residents who want to build new homes in limbo. Tunheim said in rejecting the appeal that that the public's interest in "effective and thorough environmental review" is significant and outweighs the added costs.

"This narrow injunction will protect that interest until the MDNR has completed its analysis," the judge wrote.

The judge also rejected the diversion authority's position that the ring dike was separate from channel itself and therefore should not be subject to the DNR review.

Diversion authority chairman Darrell Vanyo said he's not surprised by Wednesday's ruling, but was disappointed that the order did not spell out whether people who are replacing homes on the flood plain can continue construction. He said that will force the authority to file more legal documents.

"The people in Oxbow are the ones who are suffering," Vanyo said. "And a lot of these contractors are losing their construction season, so it could be very devastating to them. Some of them have even spoken to the fact that it could drive them out of business."

The Fargo-Moorhead area has dealt with major Red River floods several times in recent years, including a record-setting crest in 2009 when leaders considered whether to evacuate the town during a frantic sandbagging effort. The diversion authority is hoping to break ground on the channel in 2016.

A group of diversion opponents representing about 20 cities and townships in North Dakota and Minnesota filed the lawsuit in August 2013, saying there were better and cheaper options, and later added a motion to stop construction of the ring dike.

"Ultimately I don't know who's winning in the end here, quite frankly," Vanyo said. "I think we're doing tremendous damage to a lot of firms, a lot of businesses ... the trickle-down effect of this can be very devastating."

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