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Peterson optimistic sugar program will be in next farm bill

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news Bemidji, 56619
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

GRAND FORKS, N.D. --U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said Wednesday that he is optimistic the U.S. sugar program will be continued in the next farm bill, but he said he is unsure when -- or if -- a proposed $1.78 billion Red River diversion to protect Fargo and Moorhead during flooding can be built given the current "fiscal environment."

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"I think we'll get it done, but it's not going to be easy, and there will be a lot of obstacles in the meantime," he told the Herald's editorial board. "We're supporting it, and we're going to do everything we can to help them get it done."

But Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, said a portion of the $1.2 billion of conservation funding over the next 10 years included in the next farm bill could begin to address regional flooding issues even before the diversion breaks ground.

The funding is available for five priority conservation areas across the country, including the Red River Valley and other notable water bodies such as Puget Sound and the Chesapeake Bay.

Peterson said the valley has good prospects for securing much of the $235 million that will be available the first year beginning Oct. 1 because of the five targeted areas, just the Red River Valley and the Chesapeake Bay have projects ready to start now.

The money could help the region begin the process Peterson has championed for years of building up water retention sites that can hold, and slowly release, spring runoff to lower flood crests.

"There's an opportunity for us, and I think there's going to be adequate money for us to fund this retention out of this regional partnership," he said. "But the (Red River Retention Authority) has got to go out and identify these projects, and they're doing that now."

Peterson said the federal funding could help build more retention structures like the North Ottawa Impoundment Project, a man-made holding pond east of Breckenridge, Minn., that can hold as much as 16,000 acre-feet of water -- enough to reduce peak flows on the Bois de Sioux River at Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn., by about 5 percent.

Build enough retention sites like this, he said, and the Red River Valley could hold back and slowly release as much as 1 million acre-feet of water if needed and provide a noticeable impact on flooding in local communities and across the entire region.

"I believe that we'll have the retention in place 10 years from now before they ever get the diversion built, if they ever do get it built," he said. "And that will mean that they won't have to have as big a diversion, and they won't have to have as big a holding pool south of Fargo."

Peterson said the ongoing lockout of about 1,300 union employees of Moorhead-based American Crystal Sugar Co. has not yet had an effect on support for the nation's sugar program.

Under the terms of the 2008 farm bill, the program operates at no cost to taxpayers and aims to stabilize prices by giving the U.S. Department of Agriculture the authority to limit foreign imports of sugar and control how much sugar American farmers are allowed to sell.

But its future is up to the House and Senate, which will pass the next farm bill this year.

Peterson said he has worried the lockout, which began Aug. 1, might erode support in Congress to extend the sugar program. But that has not happened yet, and he said he hopes to advance the farm bill over the next few months to ensure the program is continued.

"The sugar program has not been an issue, and it hopefully will not be an issue."

RYAN JOHNSON writes for the Grand Forks Herald. The Bemidji Pioneer and The Herald are Forum Communications Co. newspapers.

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