THIS FALL, IN AN UNMARKED OFFICE IN THE SUBBASEMENT of the Minnesota state capitol, a team of resource-management planners is fine-tuning the biggest water-diversion project in the history of mankind and the largest transfer of wealth since Cortes acquired the Aztec empire.

Its code name is Excelsior, and the preliminary plan alone fills a portfolio the size of a breadbox. If all goes according to plan, on Nov. 4, 1999, the Governor of Minnesota will stand on a platform in Duluth and pull a golden lanyard, opening the gates of the Superior Diversion Canal, a concrete waterway the size of the...

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