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Hanging on to a Fargo river home despite annual threats of flooding; eyeing the melt in Marshall

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Fargo resident John Stern made a list of all the tasks.
Fargo resident John Stern made a list of all the tasks he needs to complete to protect his Fargo home from a spring flood. "Being prepared takes care of a lot of anxiety," he said Tuesday.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

People across Minnesota are keeping a close eye on river gauges as many communities brace for flooding. 

Southwest of the Twin Cities, roads are closed near Jordan and Henderson because of flooding along the Minnesota River. Upstream in Morton, population 411, resident Miranda Sam is particularly concerned about a creek that runs through the middle of town.

"It is a stream that's normally dry until the river backs up, and when it does it comes gushing," she said Wednesday. "There's absolutely nowhere for it to go except for over the highway our in our houses." 

The Mississippi River cities of Hastings and Stillwater are asking for volunteers to fill sandbags this week and into the weekend. St. Paul has declared a local emergency ahead of forecasted flooding.

A massive ice jam clogs up the Minnesota River near Seven Mile Creek Park.
A massive ice jam clogs up the Minnesota River near Seven Mile Creek Park south of St. Peter, Minn., on Wednesday.
Pat Christman | Mankato Free Press

In the southwestern Minnesota city of Marshall, the Redwood River is expected to reach a record four feet above flood stage by early next week, but the city's mayor said he's confident that Marshall's levee and diversion system will work as intended.

And in the twin cities of Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., residents are moving through their annual springtime rituals of planning, sandbagging, watching and waiting.

MPR News reporters are fanned out across the state, talking to Minnesotans about how they're dealing with the unpredictable weather and preparing for possible floods. Here's what we're seeing.

Fargo: Hanging on to a river home despite annual threats of flood

Fargo resident John Stern.
Fargo resident John Stern is preparing to defend his home near the Red River against the eighth major flood since he bought the home in 1984. Many neighboring homes are gone, bought out by the city of Fargo. But Stern has so far refused a buyout.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

John and Sherri Stern live in a shrinking neighborhood. 

The city of Fargo bought and demolished several homes near theirs in the past few years to make way for a permanent flood levee. After the record flood of 2009, city leaders in Fargo and Moorhead worked hard to convince homeowners near the river to sell. A decade later, more than 500 once flood-prone homes are gone, replaced by permanent levees. 

So far, the Sterns have refused to sell their split-level rambler with acres of backyard and the Red River just visible through the trees.

They bought this house, designed by the granddaughter of iconic architect Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1984. Five years later they fought their first of many spring floods. 

"I've been through about seven floods, I think," John Stern said Tuesday as he looked out the dining room window at the river about 100 yards away, still buried under ice and snow. It's clear Stern has an intimate relationship with the often treacherous river and it's recurring floods. 

"The base of that tree would be at about 30 feet," he said, pointing to the backyard. "The basement floor is 34 feet. We're standing at about 40 and a half feet." 

That means the dining room floor is just below the record level of 40.8 feet  the Red River hit in 2009.  

The Sterns are preparing for the possibility the river will reach those levels again this year. It's the worst-case scenario in the early flood outlooks from the National Weather Service. 

"You go through moments of anxiety, remembering what it was like. Ninety-seven was the worst because we weren't prepared at all for it. I had about 3,000 sandbags and they were leaking like a sieve," Stern said."I've taken care of that completely with the clay dike that's about 8 feet tall there, and I can put 3 or 4 feet of sandbags on top of that in a matter of three hours. I'm feeling pretty good about this." 

Stern estimates he's spent about $20,000 on the backyard levee he's been building in stages since that 1997 flood. 

After hearing the flood potential for this spring — the National Weather Service has said so far that the Red River is likely to reach major flood stage — he woke at 2 a.m., worrying. So he sat down and wrote a page-long list of all the things he needs to do before the water rises. 

"Being prepared takes care of a lot of anxiety," said Stern, who said he will start his flood preparations in earnest once he hears a more detailed flood forecast from the weather service.

The Sterns could avoid all the annual flood-related anxiety by taking a buyout from the city. But their house is on the National Register of Historic Places, and they don't want to leave. 

Fargo resident John Stern points to his snow-covered backyard.
Fargo resident John Stern points to his snow-covered backyard Tuesday, as he describes flood fights he's been involved in over the years. He holds a list of all the preparatory tasks he needs to complete before a flood arrives.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

"We don't have a Plan B if we have to leave this house," John Stern said. "We want to be in this house until we're ready to be buried in the backyard."

While their neighborhood next to the river is disappearing, across the street are mostly older, affordable homes. But to keep this area south of downtown Fargo affordable, the city needs permanent flood protection here, so homeowners won't be required to buy expensive flood insurance.  

Stern said he hopes to persuade the city to save his house by building a flood wall — instead of the large clay levee it's planning to build — to provide permanent flood protection. The city estimates a flood wall would cost $2 million. Stern said he plans to find an engineer to challenge that estimate. 

"I'm in love with the house," he said. "I admit it. I'm in love with the house. People complain about wild turkeys and deer in their backyards — [but] I've seen fox back here and mink. It's a very cool place to live, because you don't really feel like you're in the middle of town but you are in the middle of town. And it's marvelous." 

He's convinced there's an affordable way to save his home. But if he's proven wrong, he said, he will reluctantly sell. In the end, he said he won't allow his desire to stay here make life more difficult and expensive for his neighbors. He has given himself a deadline of this fall to reach an agreement with the city. 

And despite all the effort and the worry, Stern seems to almost relish the possibility of another fight with the Red River.  

"As stressful as it is, it is our shining moment, I believe, as a community, because we come together and we overcome and we survive and we get stronger and better for it," said Stern. "Gosh, what a marvelous feeling it was in 1997 and in 2009 where the community came together. I get goosebumps thinking about it."

— Dan Gunderson | Fargo, N.D. 


Marshall: Monitoring the meltdown

The Redwood River in Marshall
The Redwood River from Airport Road in Marshall, Minn., Tuesday. Near record-high flooding is projected to take place this weekend and early into next week.
Jenny Kirk | The Marshall Independent

Jeff Biever and Brian Rodas, employees at Lyon County Highway Department's Russell location, were busy Tuesday cleaning up and getting ready for what Mother Nature might hand out next.

While busy with county road maintenance duties, they are also keeping an eye on the Redwood River.

"Hopefully, we're done with snow removal," Biever said. "We check our roads every day. [Monday night] about 9:30 p.m., the Sheriff's Department called and said there was water on the road on County Road 5, north of Minnesota Hwy. 19. So we ended up putting a barricade up on that one."

Biever said the slow melt the past week or so has been good. But he's concerned about the temps rising in a few days.

"It's just not all broke loose yet," he said about the Redwood River through Russell. "When we get a couple of 50-degree days, that's when we're going to start having problems."

That rapid melting caused by rising temperatures this weekend looks to push the Redwood River water level to near-record highs, according to the National Weather Service office in Sioux Falls, S.D.

"It's going to get real interesting starting this weekend and into next week," Hydrologist Mike Gillispie said. "There's four, five, six and as much as eight inches of water across Lyon County still sitting in the snowpack that hasn't run off yet. As it melts, all that water is going to run into the river."

Gillispie said the rapid melt is expected to start on Friday.

"It's going to be big," he said. "It's these kind of flows and levels we haven't seen for 10 to 20 years. Right now, we're forecasting the peak stage there for Marshall at 18 feet. The timing on that would be Tuesday morning, the 26th."

The current record high for the Redwood River at Marshall is 17.40, which occurred on July 3, 2018. The second recorded high was 17.09 on Sept. 25, 2010. But Gillispie noted that the values are somewhat skewed because the gauge was moved nearly seven years ago.

"We have to remember that the gauge used to be out west of town through 2012," he said. "It got moved. So the record crest we have — for example the 2010 value where it was 17.09 —  we'd have to get to 18.4 to be at that stage when you correlate that to now."

In terms of record flows, Gillispie said projections look similar to the flooding in 2010 and not quite as high as that in May 1993 (recorded at 17 feet).

"The record flow we had was in 1993, with almost 6,400 cubic feet per second," Gillispie said. "What we're forecasting now is more along 4,200, which is very close to what we had in 2010, but not quite what we saw in '93. That was not a good year."

Taking everything into account, Gillispie said it appears that this week's flooding potential will technically be close to the record values even though the stage might end up being a new high (because of the moved gauge).

"The 2010 flood is probably a good frame of reference for people who remember that September flood," he said. "That's kind of what we're looking at in reference to how much flooding and how much water is coming through."

Gillispie pointed out that flood levels for the Redwood River at Russell looks to be slightly lower than in 2010.

"Russell isn't a forecast point, but if we get up around that 4,000 cubic feet per second, we're estimating that it'll get up to 19.7 feet," he said. "It's a lot of water. It's a little bit less than 2010, when it hit 20.0. But again, it's right close to that. And we only have data going back 10-15 years."

Glenn Olson, director of public works in Marshall, is also among countless people who are currently monitoring the river levels.

"We want to make sure we're not scaring people," Olson said. "We're trying to be as proactive, so we're getting ready for this weekend. We expect, with a much higher temperature than we've had and not freezing overnight, we have a potential for increased flooding in localized areas. Right now, the water levels for the river are good, but the projected levels are high. So we'll be monitoring them and keeping and eye on the dike."

— Jenny Kirk | The Marshall Independent