The spring melt is well under way, but Fargo-Moorhead residents probably won't pay much attention.
Several months of unusually dry conditions mean that for the first time in three years, thousands of residents of the Red River Valley aren't scrambling to prepare for major flooding.
For the last three years, spring for John Stern meant sandbags, pumps and sleep deprivation. In 2009, Stern and his wife were visiting grandchildren in Colorado in late March when record flooding came earlier than expected.
"I got a frantic call from my neighbor saying 'you've gotta get home, you've gotta get home. They say the flood is coming early this year and it's gonna be the worst ever,' " Stern said.
And it was the worst ever. The Red River reached a record level and Fargo-Moorhead narrowly avoided catastrophic flooding. Historic floods followed in 2010 and 2011.
"I don't have to worry about that this year. It's a real relief," Stern said.
This spring Stern plans an uninterrupted visit with his grandchildren. But after three years of high water, flood fighting mode isn't far away.
"It's not hard to revisit that emotionally and to hear the pumps running and smell the crisp mornings and the water floating by and the ducks right up by your bedroom window," he said.
“We never really had that opportunity to really internalize and think about what we've been through.”Michael Redlinger, Moorhead city manager
Stern said last fall he worried about another flood this year. But when dry conditions persisted through the winter, he started to relax.
"We're carrying around 50-pound sandbags on our shoulders both physically and emotionally for months," Stern said. "And we don't have to do that this year."
Stern also hopes business will be better this spring at his Fargo clothing store. He describes sales from March to May the past three years as "crummy." Many local businesses suffered the past three springs as thousands of people delayed normal purchases for weeks to focus on the flood fight.
Flooding also put normal city business on hold the past three years.
"When I look at 2011 we took ourselves off line about the 22nd, 23rd of January and we really didn't return to regular work until the end of April, early May," said Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger.
This year the city is refocusing on growth and economic development instead of a flood fight, Redlinger said. Some city staff are still busy with flood-related home buyouts and levee projects, but Redlinger said there's much less pressure than the past three years.
"We never really had that opportunity to really internalize and think about what we've been through in 2009, '10 and '11," Redlinger said. "It's really overwhelming when you think about it."
Moorhead and Fargo spent millions of dollars on flood mitigation over the past three years. Both cities are better prepared for big floods. So are hundreds of homeowners who choose to live near the Red River and spent the past three years building higher backyard levees to protect their homes.
NEW EXPERIENCE FOR ONE FAMILY
Spring without a major flood will be a brand new experience for Amy O'Connor, her husband Tim and their three sons. They moved into their south Moorhead home along the Red River in 2008.
In 2009, they got a crash course in flood fighting. Five feet of water filled their basement.
Now they're seasoned flood veterans. They built a backyard shed to store all the pumps generators and hoses needed for a flood fight. O'Connor has a binder with detailed step-by-step plans.
"You have to feel like you have some control over it, even though you have no control over it at all," O'Connor said. "But now this year, I don't even think about it. I have walked down there though to see how low it is. And it is really low, it's great."
O'Connor said this year, she enjoys waking up without a knot of worry in her stomach. The family has a new dog, something they put off for two years because of the chaos of flooding. This summer they plan yard improvement projects rather than months of flood cleanup.
And they'll spend some time just decompressing.
"I can't remember what I did last month but I can tell you almost everything that happened to the day in '09 when we flooded," she said. "I guess it probably is more stressful than I think it is."
Just down the street homes are missing, replaced by permanent earthen levees. Moorhead is removing more than 200 flood-prone homes along the river.
O'Connor said her family recently talked about the future, and decided they will stay in this home along the Red River.
"We've just made our peace with living here and it's a risk we're willing to take," she said.