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Deep divide

Mark Askegaard, 53, and his daughter, Beth, 23, farm south of Moorhead, near Comstock. They contend the current Fargo-Moorhead Diversion Plan isn’t the most cost-effective and say it will needlessly force them out of organic farming. Forum News Service

MOORHEAD — Mark Askegaard is one of scores of farmers south of Fargo-Moorhead who are using the courts and political influence against a $1.8 billion Red River flood diversion project they say will forever change their lives, land and towns.

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A fourth-generation farmer south of Moorhead, Askegaard, 53, said he’d rather be thinking only about planting and marketing crops this time of year, but instead he’s preoccupied with the epic issue.

In Askegaard’s mind, the diversion needlessly undermines the productivity of thousands of acres of the Red River Valley’s best and most valuable farmland, and is moving ahead despite no solid solutions for crop insurance in that area. It is billed as the best, most cost-effective way of protecting the existing Fargo-Moorhead and Cass County property from flooding, but he and other critics say they’re suffering the effects of a city simply wanting to develop land in a natural flood plain.

Rodger D. Olson disagrees. He’s a Leonard, N.D., farmer, Red River Diversion Authority member and co-chair with Askegaard on an agricultural subcommittee for the project. He said the groups are working toward crop insurance solutions and the priorities for the project are effectiveness and safety. While his own farm isn’t affected by flooding or diversion impacts, some of his family’s land is — his children went to school in Kindred, N.D., which would feel the effects.

“I look at it as flood protection of almost 200,000 people,” Olson said. “What is that value? I look at it as protection for a hospital I might need, 40 miles away. I don’t get a direct benefit here at my home. I have an indirect benefit from what’s protected there.”

Details of the plan

Askegaard’s great-grandfather came from Norway in 1890 and settled around Hickson, N.D. After a big flood in 1897, the family moved across the river near Comstock. Askegaard has managed the farm since 1982 and started transitioning to organic in 1994. His daughter, Beth, also is in the operation. The Askegaards are among a handful of farmers in a seven-mile radius who raise some 5,500 acres of certified organic grains.

Since the record flood of 40.8 feet in Fargo in 2009, Askegaard says the project has developed in ways he never could have imagined.

“We’re sitting above the 500-year flood plain on the Minnesota side here. We never got flooded after that,” Askegaard said. If the diversion goes through as planned, his 900 acres would be within the “red box,” a term for areas that will see more than 1 foot of floodwater.

The “original diversion” was discussed as coming onto the Minnesota side, and would have been farther north at the Red River and Wild Rice River confluence. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and others protested that because Minnesota’s topography was 5.5 feet higher, and Minnesota communities weren’t suffering as much as Fargo and Cass County. That was scuttled in the spring of 2010.

The Red River Diversion Authority contracted with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which settled on new plans for diversions on the North Dakota side, moving the impacts upstream, or to the south (the Red River flows north). The plan called for the project to retain water in a specified area, where the impact would be more predictable. There would be a control structure, a 13-foot-tall dam on the river, and tie-back levies. When the diversion is used, it could impact 50,000 acres upstream (south) from Fargo with between 1 inch and 8.5 feet of water.

Askegaard’s place, 10 miles south of Moorhead, theoretically would have 3 feet of water, a ring dike and some land would be lost to the diversion dike. He said there are no assurances on how multi-peril crop insurance will be handled in shallower areas flooded by the diversion.