Stage set for major Red River flooding
FARGO -- The National Weather Service on Friday issued a grim outlook for spring flooding in the Red River Valley, with conditions ripe for a repeat of last year's record river levels.
"This year, we have a system that is charged and ready," said Greg Gust, warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service in Grand Forks. "We're sitting on virtually the same keg of dynamite, if you will, from a precursor condition that we had last year."
The dynamite, he explained, is the saturated frozen ground, the limited capacity of rivers and sloughs to handle more water, and above-average moisture in the snowpack.
March rainfall and the speed of the melt make up the fuse that could set off a major flood, Gust said.
The outlook calls for an 86 percent chance the river at Fargo will exceed major flood stage of 30 feet before April 30, compared with a 78 percent chance forecast at this time last year.
There's a 50 percent chance the river could surpass 34.6 feet and a 10 percent chance it could hit 40.6 feet, which is 3 inches below the record of 40.84 feet set last March 28. The record, previously recorded as 40.82 feet by the U.S. Geological Survey, has since been officially revised upward by the agency.
Most of Fargo is protected to about 36 feet.
Mayor Dennis Walaker issued a statement, however, saying it's "too early to worry," and that conditions over the next month will determine flood stages.
The city is monitoring the situation and making preparations, he said.
"We learned a lot of lessons from the 2009 event," he said in an interview.
Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland also said there are a lot of variables, and the flood picture could change between now and spring thaw.
The city plans to hold neighborhood meetings in the coming weeks to let residents know about changes made since last year's flood.
Gust said it's possible, if February and March turn out to be milder and drier than last year, this could be a "light-duty" flood.
"But clearly, the risk that we could go into a significant flooding scenario is there," he said.
'Going to be tough'
For some, the thought of enduring another backbreaking flood fight hit like a ton of sandbags.
"Hoo, man," Lisbon, N.D., Mayor Ross Cole said upon hearing the outlook.
His city just finished repaving streets in November that were damaged during the 2009 flood, when the Sheyenne River crested at 22.84 feet in April.
Now, there's a 20 percent chance the river will reach 23.6 feet before April 30 and a 50 percent chance it will hit 20.6 feet. Without temporary measures, Lisbon is protected to about 19 feet.
"This poor city, and Fargo is the same way, I just don't know what another major flood is going to do to us," Cole said. "It's very fresh in people's minds. If you're talking back-to-back like this, it's going to be tough."
Fargo is in better shape to fight a major flood this year, having completed a dike project by the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in north Fargo and another on South University Drive, Walaker said.
Two dozen homes were bought out in flood-prone areas, and a levee built east of Oak Street before last year's flood also is still in place, City Engineer Mark Bittner said.
The construction of a clay dike on Second Street to protect City Hall - a step that's become almost ritual in recent years - "looks like it's almost guaranteed now," Bittner said.
Walaker said the frequent flooding is "getting extremely old, especially for some of us who are long in the tooth."
Cass County is formulating plans for emergency levees, and it has a lot of sand left over from last year's flood fight, Engineer Keith Berndt said.
"We're not going to panic, but we're going to prepare," he said.
The county is in the process of closing on buyout homes, which will reduce the areas that need protection, he said.
"It does take pressure off that way," he said.
Several factors in mix
Weather service officials said crest predictions won't come until the melt begins and water starts flowing.
But the signs so far aren't positive:
Lakes, marshes and wetlands didn't have a chance to dry out last summer, and the Red River froze in Fargo-Moorhead at a higher level this winter than last winter, Gust said.
"When we have above-normal flow, it takes longer than a year to get rid of all that water," he said.
The El Nino weather phenomenon that formed last summer, giving forecasters hope for a drier and milder winter, hasn't behaved as normal and is showing signs of weakening, said Mark Ewens, weather service data manager. Temperature patterns in February, March and April are expected to "fluctuate wildly," he said.
"The likelihood is that the patterns will continue to see above-normal precipitation, and unfortunately ... the southern valley seems to be in the focal point for getting the more significant precipitation," he said.
Water in the snowpack is comparable to last winter, with amounts ranging from 4 to 5 inches in the southern Red River Valley to 2 to 4 inches elsewhere.
On the Red River, the outlook predicts a 45 percent chance of major flooding in Grand Forks and a 26 percent chance in Wahpeton. The Sheyenne River has a 95 percent chance of major flooding at Harwood, a 27 percent chance in Valley City and a 77 percent chance in Lisbon.
To make room for spring runoff from the snowmelt, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Friday that it will draw down four reservoirs in the Red River basin to maximum levels.
The next flood forecast will be released Feb. 19.