Red River crests again, on the way down

The Red River forces its way out of its banks
The Red River forced its way out of its banks as it reached record levels Saturday, March 28, 2009.
MPR PhotoJeffrey Thompson

Over the past week, hydrologists at the North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen had been continually adjusting prediction levels for the second crest downward from initial estimates that it could reach the record water levels of 40 feet set in late March.

According to National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Buan, the lower second crest is the result of several factors.

There has been less precipitation in the Red River valley in the past 10 days than was expected. Prediction models overestimated the amount of snow and ice in the river basin as a whole. In addition, warmer temperatures thawed top layers of soil, allowing them to absorb more moisture.

The water levels on the Red River will remain high for a while.

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"We're going to be exposed here for quite a long period."

"We're seeing above the major flood stage of 30 right through next week into next weekend," Buan said. "So we're going to be exposed here for quite a long period where, if we turn it around it only needs to go up a few feet to kind of jangle the nerves, so to speak."

Officials in Fargo-Moorhead are already holding meetings with area residents to talk about cleanup. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will help clear away millions of sandbags and acres of clay dikes.

The river will remain high enough to require some levees to stay in place for several weeks. But officials will start by removing contingency levees built in case dikes along the river failed.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says residents should be prepared for a long cleanup.

Second crest of Red River
This hydrograph from the National Weather Service shows the Red River's second crest on Thursday, April 16, 2009.
Courtesy National Weather Service

"You've gotta understand there were three and a half million sandbags placed and 350,000 cubic yards of dirt," he said. "We just destroyed some soccer fields and stuff throughout the city. So it's going to take some time. We understand that and I hope the public out there understands it also."

The corps will remove dikes on public property, as well as flood protection material placed on private and commercial property by government agencies. The corps will not be removing flood debris, like damaged household goods, carpeting or demolition material.

Sandbags and dikes that homeowners brought in themselves will also be hauled away if they are moved to a street curb, although homeowners can also pay private contractors to remove sandbags from their yards.

Moorhead City Manager Mike Redlinger says he expects contracts for cleanup work will be approved next week.

Homes are surrounded by ice and flood water
Homes are surrounded by ice and flood water from the Red River March 29, 2009 near Fargo, N.D. The National Weather Service says the Red reached its second crest of 34 feet on Thursday night, and has begun to recede.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

"From a community-wide infrastructure standpoint and from how we fared generally, I mean we couldn't be more happy," he said. "We're a month after we began this thing. Now here we are today, talking about the removal of nearly 20 miles of temporary levees. It's just an incredible, incredible thing."

Officials on both sides of the Red River are talking more about recovery and flood mitigation work for the future.

"I just enjoyed the fact that the water hardly touched any bags in Moorhead for the second crest," said Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland. "Now we can be concerned about cleaning up a tremendous mess we have throughout town, but secondly, starting to figure out how do we protect our communities from future flood fight... That's going to be a long term process and at times a very frustrating process."

As water levels recede in Fargo-Moorhead, meltwater from the Sheyenne River is causing flooding in rural areas west of Fargo. When rain falls on the saturated ground this spring, the precipitation could bring flooding back to the area.

The eastern part of North Dakota is covered with so-called prairie potholes and those are over flowing. High water on tributaries of the Red River, like the Sheyenne, are exaggerating the effect.

"This water is spilling out of these prairie potholes from one to the next kind of in a cascade effect," said hydrologist Steve Buan. "That water is slowly working it's way down south toward the Sheyenne River. And that's just going to extend the runoff hydrograph on the Sheyenne out many, many days. It just kind of puts us under the gun for a longer period of time on the Sheyenne."

Water will stay high in communities like Valley City, North Dakota and in rural areas. There's also concern about reservoirs that are nearly full and might not be able to absorb any heavy rain that falls in the next couple of weeks.