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Loved ones fear consequences of diverting Fargo-area floodwaters to rural cemetery sites

In this May 20, 2014 photo, Lillian Johnson walks back to the car after visiting the graves of her husband, two sons and nephews who are buried at the Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery near Wild Rice, N.D. Johnson has buried her husband and other family members in the tiny cemetery in southeastern North Dakota that would be threatened by a flood protection project meant to save the state’s largest city. (AP Photo/Jesse Trelstad)

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In this May 20, 2014 photo, Lillian Johnson walks back to the car after visiting the graves of her husband, two sons and nephews who are buried at the Lower Wild Rice and Red River Cemetery near Wild Rice, N.D. Johnson has buried her husband and other family members in the tiny cemetery in southeastern North Dakota that would be threatened by a flood protection project meant to save the state’s largest city. (AP Photo/Jesse Trelstad)

WILD RICE, N.D. - Lillian Johnson has buried her husband and other family members in a tiny southeastern North Dakota cemetery that would be threatened by a flood protection project meant to save the state's largest city. The 90-year-old plans to join her loved ones someday, come hell or high water.

Johnson is among of group of mostly rural and small-town residents opposed to a proposed channel that would move water around the Fargo area in times of serious flooding and would instead inundate farmland and other rural areas, including at least six cemeteries.

Measures proposed so far to spare the cemeteries — including moving or anchoring graves or building dikes around the sites — aren't sitting well with family members.

"There's something about a cemetery, you just can't do that to it. It's just too much," Johnson said. "And people are there and this is their final resting place and it's a place to come home to. I just don't see it."

The 36-mile diversion would move water from the north-flowing Red River around Fargo and neighbouring Moorhead, Minnesota, which battled major flooding for three straight years starting with a record crest in 2009. Backers of the nearly $2 billion plan say it's the only way to save North Dakota's largest city from an eventual catastrophic event.

The U.S. House and Senate last week approved authorization for the project, but that doesn't include funding.

Opponents have filed a federal lawsuit asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to design a cheaper project that doesn't call for rural flooding. In the meantime, a group representing 16 North Dakota and Minnesota cemeteries are wondering what will happen to their gravesites.

"It's hard to look at something that your ancestors picked 120 years ago to bury someone because it was a good site, and now all of a sudden because of development in Fargo, they think they can force water on us," said Luke Brakke, who has four generations of family members buried in the Clara Cemetery near Comstock, Minnesota.

Army Corps spokeswoman Terry Williams said she understands the angst among people connected to the cemeteries, but said the corps only recently completed a preliminary study on impacts and possible solutions.

"We are impacting people. We are impacting their homes, we are impacting their land, we are impacting the places where they are burying their loved ones," Williams said. "We do try to be sensitive to that."

Short of moving the cemeteries, the most likely solution would be building levees or ring dikes — grass-covered clay walls of various dimensions — around the sites. Members of the Upstream Cemetery Authority worry the structures would ruin the natural beauty around sacred ground.

Other options include anchoring gravestones and coffins, stabilizing areas where there is potential for erosion — or just cleaning up after flooding.

"The reason that the Upstream Cemetery Authority was formed was to honour and respect those who lay at rest in our cemeteries," said Joel Hanson, who represents the authority. "...To my knowledge, the different cemeteries have not had a say in any of the planning in regards to what will happen to the cemeteries."

Darrell Vanyo, chairman of the Red River Diversion Authority, said some cemeteries actually would benefit from the project — noting three of the six identified as being affected by diverted water would flood in the event of a so-called 100-year flood anyway.

"And those three, we're bringing 17 inches to one, 8 1/2 inches to another and 3 1/2 inches to another," he said. "So we haven't spoken directly to those people as to what their choices would be. But it seems logical to me that a foot and a half can be protected by a levee as well as 8 1/2 or 3 1/2 inches."

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