Red River flooding may hit new areas this yearby Dan Gunderson, Minnesota Public Radio
The National Weather Service predicts significant flooding in the Red River Valley this spring. Most communities should be safe from serious damage, but Mother Nature is complicating the flood forecasting.
Moorhead, Minn. — Record rains last fall set the stage for this spring's flood outlook.
According to Steve Buan, a hydrologist with the North Central River Forecast Center, saturated soil and a cold wet spring mean major flooding is likely.
"I think we're expecting some pretty high levels up there," Buan said. "If you look at recent history of the 2006 crest in the Red River Valley in Fargo, we're looking at a 25 percent chance of equaling or exceeding 2006. In Grand Forks we're looking at a 40 percent chance of equaling or exceeding the 2006 level."
The 2006 flood caused little damage in cities along the river.
Grand Forks, East Grand Forks, Fargo, Moorhead and Breckenridge should be safe at those levels, largely because of flood protection added since the catastrophic flood of 1997.
Grand Forks Public Information Officer Kevin Dean says a decade ago, an expected river crest of 47 feet would have been an impending crisis. But the new levee system protects the city to 57 feet.
"I do remember in 2006 we had a lot of people who went down to the river," Dean recalled. "They wanted to see how well that flood protection project was going to work and it worked flawlessly. It did exactly as it is supposed to do. We're very confident the system we have in place right now will do the job it's intended to do."
Dean says this year's flood will likely be a minor inconvenience for Grand Forks residents.
Hydrologist Steve Buan says Mother Nature is not making the flood forecasting easy this year.
There is a weak La Nina weather system in the Pacific ocean. That historically means colder temperatures here which delays the spring melt and pushes flooding into April.
"We would see late crests into April which would tend to not be a good thing to have because that gets us much closer to that convective precipitation which kicks off about that time," he said. "We could experience heavy rainfall right at the time the rivers are swollen."
Buan says a second potential curve ball from Mother Nature is a January thaw which melted a lot of snow and filled ditches and culverts with water.
"That snow and rain came and filled those culverts up and then froze them solid with the cold temperatures we've had in the last week and a half." Buan said. "That doesn't portend well for getting this spring melt to flow easily into the streams. We're expecting a lot of overland flooding."
That could mean small towns and farms that have never flooded before, might see unexpected flooding.
It's also likely to leave behind a lot of damaged roads as the melting snow and ice find a new path to the river around those ice-blocked ditches.
Wilkin County Emergency Manager Vernon Woytassek says he expects a big bill for road repair after the spring flood.
"Our main concern right now is the overland flooding," he said. "The city of Breckenridge and the other cities in the county should be safe. Obviously it all depends on how much rain we get in March and April and how fast the thaw is."
Woytassek says the predictions of a wetter-than- normal spring worry him, but that predictions don't always come true.
"These same people predicted a wet February which did not happen," Woywassek said. "They're also predicting a wet March and April. I personally am hoping they're wrong again."
The National Weather Service will issue it's next flood outlook on March 13th.
- All Things Considered, 02/27/2009, 5:50 p.m.