Despite ranking 47th among the states in population size, North Dakota may land some of the biggest earmarks in the nation for water projects: $14.3 million for infrastructure, $13.4 million for rural water supplies and a provision -- its price unspecified -- to require the federal government to pay for all future flood control work at Devil's Lake.
Those earmarks carry among the largest price tags in the water and energy section of the spending bill Senate Democrats hope to pass before year's end.
For the potential local tax dollars saved and jobs created, North Dakotans can thank outgoing Sen. Byron Dorgan. The Democratic chairman of the Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee has wielded his influence expertly, echoing the calls across Capitol Hill for greater investment in the nation's crumbling water infrastructure while using his powerful seat to ensure that an outsized portion of that investment flows to North Dakota, observers say.
"We have very serious needs for investments in water infrastructure," Dorgan said in July at a subcommittee markup of a bill that proposed spending nearly half a billion dollars more on water projects than President Obama proposed in his budget.
In an analysis of earmarks lawmakers requested this spring, North Dakota ranked first in the nation in dollars per capita requested, about $3,911 per person, or almost twice as much as Mississippi's $2,262, according to the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. That group's analysis of the latest spending measures is not yet complete.
The group also found that Dorgan ranked 12th in the Senate for total earmark money requested, not far behind the Senate's top three earmark-requesters, by dollar amount: Louisiana's Mary Landrieu (D), Mississippi's Roger Wicker (R) and Kansas' Sam Brownback (R).
"He's proven pretty adept at getting them," said Steve Ellis, spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Senator Dorgan's no slouch."
A Dorgan spokesman dismissed the comparison. "We'd be high, per capita, for anything," said spokesman Barry Piatt.
Earmarks are generally defined as specific federal spending requests made by individual lawmakers for projects in their home district. The practice, often associated with "pork barrel" or "pay to play" politics, once again has come under intense scrutiny, since Senate Democrats unveiled a 2011 spending proposal this week that includes thousands of them, requested by both Republicans and Democrats, including some members who have criticized the practice.
Dorgan is not one of those. He defends earmark spending as the logical way for Congress to target federal dollars to region-specific needs and a relatively insignificant portion of federal spending. The 6,700 earmarks included in the proposed $1.1 trillion spending plan total $8.1 billion.
"You would think members of the House and Senate know best about the priorities of the states and the regions," Dorgan said. "The way to reduce the federal budget deficit is not to change the issue of earmarks."
Asked about the water projects he earmarked, Dorgan described a separate issue: a state-federal agreement struck decades ago that promised irrigation projects in return for flooding a large swath of North Dakota farmland.
"This is the result of finishing an agreement with the federal government," Dorgan said.
The deal dates back to a 1944 act of Congress in which North Dakota allowed for six dams to be constructed along the Missouri River. In exchange for the 300,000 acres of farmland that would be flooded, Washington, D.C., promised the state more than 1 million acres of irrigation by moving water to the eastern part of the state.
Over the ensuing decades, progress has started and stopped amid concerns over environmental effects, costs, land acquisition and Canadians' fears that water might be pushed north into their country from the Missouri River.
"That's the rationale for a lot of what he does: Promises were made. A flood was delivered. We still need to get what we were supposed to get in exchange," said David Conrad, senior water resources specialist for the National Wildlife Federation.
Conrad said Dorgan's water earmarks raise complex questions about the federal government's role in protection against flooding and providing for irrigation and infrastructure.
In the case of Devil's Lake, Dorgan's earmark would assume all costs for maintenance and rehabilitation of a levee designed to hold back waters of a lake that has no natural release valve and has, as a result, tripled in size since 1993 thanks to a string of wet years.
Environmentalists admit it is a "crisis situation" for the nearby town of Devil's Lake, population 7,200, but add that for the federal government to assume the cost of all future levee maintenance sets an unsustainable precedent, because hundreds of levees around the nation have been deemed to be at risk of failing. Since 1993, already more than $800 million has been spent relocating utilities, raising roadbeds, and buying and moving homes in the way of the waters, Conrad said.
"That's quite an impressive rider to put into such a bill, with obviously substantial future costs and possibly, setting a precedent that could ultimately open the floodgates to call upon the government to assume levee costs elsewhere," Conrad said. Normally, the federal government would split such costs, were it not for the $65 billion backlog in the Army Corps of Engineers' construction budget and the vast maintenance needs of the nation's levees.
"There's not enough money in the world for the federal government to pay all the local costs associated with levees in the country right now," Conrad said.
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