Likelihood of Major Flooding on Midwest’s Red River Rises

January 20, 2011

The likelihood of significant Red River flooding has risen in North Dakota and Minnesota, the National Weather Service said in its latest outlook for the river that has overflowed the past two springs and sent officials and residents in the densely populated region scrambling to save homes and businesses.

There is about a 20-percent chance the river at Fargo, N.D., and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., will surpass the record crest set in 2009 and about a 50-percent chance it will beat last year’s crest, which was the sixth-highest on record, the weather service said.

Meteorologist Greg Gust said that precipitation levels in the Red River Valley are tracking between the high mark set at this time in 1997, when floods wiped out Grand Forks, about 70 miles north of Fargo, and 2009, when the river eventually crested at nearly 41 feet. Flood stage is 18 feet.

“I don’t know about any of you, but that starts to make a weather guy nervous,” Gust said told a gathering of reporters and government officials.

The probability is measured by three major factors, which Gust referred to as a three-legged stool: precipitation and moisture content in the soil, water in the snowpack and the expected spring thaw cycle.

Gust called the precipitation factor “very high,” the liquid in the snowpack “likely very high” and the spring outlook “likely cool, stormy, wet.”

“The first two legs of the stool have been knocked out from under us. That third leg is awfully wobbly. I don’t feel good about it all. I would not want to sit on that stool,” Gust said.

Deputy Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said he was not surprised by the new figures.

“Everybody knows we’ve had 19 days of snow in a row. We’ve been shoveling every night,” he said.

City officials will be meeting to discuss which areas need the most flood protection, Mahoney said. Fargo and Moorhead already have built up areas and bought out homes near the river over the past decade to keep most of the area protected to at least 40 feet.

“The message is, we will prepare for what we have to prepare for, but we will probably start earlier preparations,” he said. “We’re going to need some help earlier probably than later in this particular area.”

In 2009, the river was above flood stage for a record 61 days. It crested twice — first at 40.84 feet on March 28, followed by a crest of 34 feet more than two weeks later. About 100 homes in the area were damaged, and thousands of people were evacuated.

The Fargo area has received nearly 56 inches of snow — nearly 16 inches above its average for an entire winter season, the weather service said. That comes on top of summer and fall rainfall that was 50 percent above normal.

The current flood factors are similar to those that weren’t recorded until March last year, Gust said.

Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney described latest flooding predictions as “concerning” and “spooky.”

“We’ve always been able to win, we’ve always been able to fight it,” Laney said. “We’ll continue to fight it, but every spring brings out its own new set of rules to the game.”

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