Regional water supply project sees continued local support as planning progresses

Post Date: Aug 31 2016

Grand Forks Herald
By Brandi Jewett on Aug 13, 2016

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—There was a time in 1988 that Dan Boyce can recall no water flowing over the Riverside Park dam.

A drought had slowed the Red River’s flow but the demand for water from East Grand Forks and Grand Forks continued.

“All the water that was coming down the river and the Red Lake River was being used between the two cities,” said Boyce, who is the general manager of East Grand Forks Water and Light.

It’s a situation he and other local leaders on both sides of the river want to avoid in the coming decades, when climate experts predict a period of severe drought as an inevitability.

With a unanimous vote Aug. 4, the East Grand Forks Water and Light Commission secured the city’s continued participation in a regional project seeking to keep water on tap in times of drought.

The vote gave the green light to an agreement between the city and the Lake Agassiz Water Authority that pledges money to the continued development of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project. The $1 billion project seeks to provide a supplemental water source by transporting water from the Missouri River to the Red River through a series of pipelines and natural waterways.

The project has seen restructure over the years following the loss of federal partners and remains in its planning stages between the state of North Dakota and LAWA, which represents local entities in 13 eastern North Dakota counties and three Minnesota cities.

“Essentially, what we’re asked to consider at this point is what’s the cost to stay at the table?” Boyce said. “What do we have to ante up to stay in the game while everything gets sorted out?”

Grand Forks had approved a similar agreement in May, committing a maximum of $364,000 to planning and development costs. Under its agreement, East Grand Forks pledged $34,000.

Limited options

In total, the project’s planning costs are estimated at $16.2 million with 90 percent of that covered by the state of North Dakota. The remaining 10 percent would be covered by local participants.

The costs are based on future water needs estimations, with the project needing a total commitment of 100 cubic feet per second to be feasible.

Duane DeKrey, manager of the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District, which is the state agency facilitating the project, said the project has more than 100 cfs in commitments.

“We’ve met with more than 40 systems and we have about 20 more to go,” he said. “We’re well on track. Things seem to be going well and people seem to have a lot of interest in the project.”

Local partners have until Oct. 1 to sign agreements with LAWA.

Once the agreements and accompanying information is compiled, project backers will present it to the North Dakota Legislature during its 2017 session, DeKrey said.

The agreements are the latest step in a project that has been in discussion for some time in North Dakota. The Red River Valley Water Supply Project took shape more than a decade ago as a means of preparing for the likelihood of a severe drought in the coming 50 years.

Locally, a drought would jeopardize the amount of water Grand Forks and East Grand Forks would be able to access because the Red River and Red Lake River are their only feasible water sources.

“We don’t have another place where we can go to get water if there’s insufficient water in the river,” Boyce said.

It was a fact echoed by East Grand Forks Water Plant Superintendent Randy Rapacz after the Water and Light Commission’s Aug. 4 vote. The city draws about 90 percent of its drinking water from the Red Lake River, he said.

Both Boyce and Rapacz note that with no nearby water sources that wouldn’t require heavy treatment to be fit for use, the cost of piping water from a greater distance begins to stack up and rivals the city’s cost share of participating in the project.

The Red River Valley Water Supply Project would bring more water to the area by piping it from the Missouri River near Washburn, N.D., and eventually carrying it to the Sheyenne River, which flows into the Red River.

For some participants such as East Grand Forks, it provides an additional source of water while others involved in the project would use the increased flow to keep up with demands spurred by growth.

Economic impact

Grand Forks city leaders have identified the project as a major priority and listed it as a recipient of sales tax funding should residents approved an additional 0.75 percent tax through a public vote this fall.

The tax as proposed would collect money for future water, sewage and street projects. The city projects more than $400 million in infrastructure needs in the next 10 years. Among those needs are the accumulation of costs associated with the water supply project, estimated at $30 million.

Cost estimates for local partners such as Grand Forks and East Grand Forks have changed as the overall price of the project has fluctuated.

At this point, Rapacz said East Grand Forks total investment could come in around $3 million.

Investment in the project may claim hefty sums of city dollars but a joint analysis conducted by North Dakota and the federal government found the cost of bearing a drought similar to one seen in the 1930s would be much higher for the region.

“If we had that ‘30s style drought, the economic impact to the entire state would be $20.2 billion over a 10-year period,” said Grand Forks City Council member Ken Vein. He serves as the chairman of the Garrison Diversion Board as well as vice chairman of LAWA’s governing board.

Such a disaster likely isn’t on the forefront of resident’s minds now, but Vein pointed out that when people don’t have water, it affects their quality of life very quickly. If a drought were to strike the area without a supplemental water source available, local utility officials say there would be little alternative other than conserving water use and limiting the expansion of industries that are heavy users.

“If we don’t have water supply, we don’t have a community,” Vein said. “It’s probably one of the most critical infrastructure needs that we have.”