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Fargo-Moorhead slows preparations as flood risk drops; road closures continue

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The Highway 41 bridge over the Minnesota River near downtown Chaska
The water level continues to rise beneath the Highway 41 bridge over the Minnesota River near downtown Chaska Frida. The bridge has been closed since March 21.
Courtesy James Bryan

Updated: 4:30 p.m. | Posted: 4 a.m.

Optimism is rising — tentatively — that the impacts of spring flooding across Minnesota will continue to be minimal this year, as near-perfect conditions remain in the forecast.

Officials in Fargo, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn., announced Friday that they are pulling back on the flood preparations that have been in full swing since spring began.

Elsewhere in the state, rivers continued to slowly rise this week along with temperatures. 

After near-balmy conditions midweek that allowed the gentle snowmelt to continue, the National Weather Service's map of river levels lit up with red and purple dots indicating moderate to major flooding on several of the region's rivers.

But so far, the flooding in the south has led mostly to a bevy of closed roads and logistical headaches. 

MPR News reporters are monitoring rivers' rises across the state. Here's what we're seeing today.

Fargo and Moorhead: Preparations slow as flood risk drops

Fargo opens Sandbag Central
Kendall Railing and his 5-year-old son, Alec, fill sandbags the old-fashioned way on Tuesday at Sandbag Central in Fargo, N.D.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Fargo officials will suspend sandbag operations Friday evening and are downgrading flood preparations in response to nearly ideal spring weather conditions that are reducing the flood risk along the Red River.

On the Minnesota side of the rising river, Moorhead will "pause sandbag operations" Saturday afternoon and "wait for additional information" before deciding if additional sandbags are needed.

The National Weather Service will issue a deterministic flood forecast as early as this weekend that sets a target for a specific flood stage the Red River is expected to reach, and helps engineers fine-tune flood preparations. 

Fargo has a strategy of preparing for worst-case flood scenarios, and that's why the city initially planned to fill a million sandbags.   

"It's easy to ramp down. It's very difficult to sit on your hands and then try to ramp up when time is really your enemy. So I would say in this case, it's worked exactly like we hoped it would," said Fargo City Administrator Bruce Grubb. 

With the reduced flood risk, Fargo will likely need fewer than 400,000 sandbags; the city will end sandbag filling operations at 7 p.m. Friday. City engineers will spend the weekend recalculating what flood protection is needed, and present an updated plan on Monday. 

Mayor Tim Mahoney said he's happy the city can slow its flood preparations. 

"We've been really pleased that the public's come out on our sandbagging, worked with us on this, and hit the goals we asked for every day," Mahoney said. "(This) once again reaffirms the community is ready to stand in case of a flood and help us out."

In Moorhead, sandbag production will continue — and volunteers still are needed — through 3 p.m. Saturday. More volunteers may be needed next week to place the sandbags in areas vulnerable to flooding.

— Dan Gunderson | Moorhead

SW Minn.: More road closures and a cresting Minnesota River

A bridge across the Minnesota River is closed due to flooding
A county highway bridge across the Minnesota River is closed due to flooding on Monday northwest of New Ulm. The bridge wasn't affected by flooding, but floodwaters were covering part of the south approach to the bridge.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

While many roads across southern Minnesota remain closed due to flooding, the Minnesota Department of Transportation reopened the eastbound section of Highway 65 out of Albert Lea on Friday.

Residents in the town of Henderson in Sibley County have been connected to the rest of the county by a single road since rising floodwaters forced MnDOT to close two of the city's three main arteries. 

A section of U.S. Highway 212 has been closed due to rising floodwaters from the Minnesota River between Montevideo and Granite Falls in southwestern Minnesota. 

The river is 3 feet beyond what's considered major flood stage, and is expected to rise another foot this weekend. 

The Minnesota Department of Transportation and State Patrol closed the section of road around noon after the river's waters rose faster than expected and spilled over the road.

"If it goes down as fast as it came up, it should open up fairly quickly. But it also could be a few more days into next week if it is a slow recede," said Craig Gertsema, MnDOT's highway maintenance superintendent for District 8. "I wouldn't anticipate a real long closure, but for sure through the weekend would by my anticipation."

The National Weather Service predicts the Minnesota River at Montevideo to crest at 21.7 feet this weekend, which would be the third-highest crest in the city's history. 

Across Chippewa County, ice jams continued to cause problems for the area's roads and bridges, according to the Montevideo American-News.

In Montevideo, the West-Central Tribune reported that workers set about reinforcing a dike on the city's southwestern side that was built in 1969. The paper reported that the spot "remains the weak link in an otherwise enhanced city levee system," and that the city has plans to complete the levee later this year.

Lac qui Parle County sheriff's deputies rescue the occupants of an SUV
Lac qui Parle County sheriff's deputies rescue the occupants of an SUV that went around a barricade and was swept off a flooded road in Garfield Township, southwest of Madison, Minn., on Thursday.
Courtesy of Lac qui Parle County Sheriff's Office

On Thursday, floodwaters from the Minnesota River hit 21 feet, 7 feet above flood stage. The paper reported that the city halted sewer services to one of its neighborhoods and to the nearby town of Watson, whose wastewater is typically treated at Montevideo's plant.

Also Thursday, the Tribune reported, Lac qui Parle sheriff's deputies rescued a man and a woman who were stranded in floodwaters when they drove their SUV around a barricade and onto a flooded road. 

The current was strong enough to push the SUV off the road and into an adjacent field. Deputies used cold-water rescue suits and an inflatable rapid-deployment watercraft to rescue the occupants.

The sheriff reminded drivers to avoid flooded roads.

— Peter Cox & MPR News staff

Updraft: River flooding forecast

Redwood River in flood stage
The Redwood River flows over the historic Swayback Bridge at Ramsey Park in Redwood Fallson Monday. The river had dropped a few feet from its peak crest over the weekend, but remained above flood stage. The bridge is designed to allow floodwaters to flow over the middle, the lowest point.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

From the MPR News weather blog: Our lack of rain the past two weeks has been helpful.  River levels won't crest as high as they would have if we had seen a couple of inches of rain.

Several locations along our Minnesota rivers remain at major or moderate flood stage. Many areas have flood warnings. You can get flood warning updates by clicking on any location on the National Weather Service Twin Cities website.

Read the full post here.

— Ron Trenda | MPR News Updraft weather blog

SE Minnesota: Hurt by weather last year, farmers face possible spring delays

Ponding and flooded fields
Ponding and flooding in fields could delay corn planting by a couple of weeks in southern Minnesota this spring.
Jacob Swanson | Faribault Daily News

Spring flooding may delay planting season a little bit for some southern Minnesota farmers, but that comes with the territory.

With most snow melted, corn-planting season is approaching. Rice and Steele ag production systems extension educator Claire LaCanne said Rice County farmers often look to plant corn between April 20 and May 10.

She said many looking out into the fields are thinking that planting may be a bit late this year, though University of Minnesota studies show that rapid yield declines don't begin until planting is pushed back to beyond May 20.

"With the flooding and ponding that we're seeing in some Rice County fields, there is a chance that planting will be delayed because the ground will stay wet and soil temperatures will likely stay low," LaCanne said. "Planting when soil temperatures are low and moisture is high can cause seeds to rot and/or delay germination which can ultimately affect plant stand and yield."

If planting is delayed past the third week of May, LaCanne said switching from late-maturity hybrids to early maturity hybrids can help reduce the risk of plants freezing in the fall before reaching maturity.

Soybean planting occurs later in the season and has a wider window, so soybeans aren't as big of a concern as corn is this spring.

Matt Braun, a corn and soybean farmer in Dennison, said he projects planting will be about two or three weeks late for him. It could always be worse, however.

"Us farmers, we've learned to ride the roller coaster," Braun said. "Mother Nature is always in control."

Last year was perhaps as big of a roller coaster as they come. With a late blizzard in April, September tornadoes and an early fall freeze, the weather gods weren't easy on farmers.

"It wasn't fun," Braun said. "Everyone wants to forget about last year and start again. Hopefully we get a good crop."

At least technology is on farmers' side. With improved equipment and technology, planting gets done a lot faster once it begins, Braun said.

"The frost is deep now, but you get some warm days when the sun is shining and the frost is getting softer and softer," Braun said. "If it stays like this we should be rocking and rolling four to six weeks, depending on Mother Nature."

A farm is surrounded by the floodwaters of the Minnesota River
A farm is surrounded by the floodwaters of the Minnesota River in Nicollet County, northwest of New Ulm, Monday.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

It is spring in Minnesota, so whether or not Mother Nature cooperates can change quickly. Some parts of the Midwest may receive a bit of snow or freezing rain this weekend, though that doesn't currently look like it will impact Rice County.

Farmers in Minnesota could use a win.

A report from the University of Minnesota Extension released on Monday stated that Minnesota farms earned the lowest median farm income in the past 23 years.

The reported median net income for farmers in 2018 was $26,055, according to the Extension service. That's down 8 percent from 2017.

"We don't have consistent numbers that go back that far, but it is very likely that 2018 was the lowest income year for Minnesota farms since the early 1980s," Dale Nordquist of the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota said in a release. 

"That said, the previous five years were not much better, so many Minnesota farms have had a string of low-income years and that has both financial and emotional impacts."

Trade issues hurt dairy, pork and crop farmers, according to Extension. The median pork producer made $27,739 in 2018, down from over $101,000 in 2017, while median crop farmers and dairy farmers earned $30,650 and less than $15,000, respectively, according to Extension. Beef producers earned just over $6,000 on average.

Dairy farms were also hurt by overproduction and crop farmers battled weather and prices.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a 2019 projection predicting farm sector profits to increase in 2019, but it's a tough market right now.

"At this point, there are way too many variables to know where we will be a year from now," Nordquist said. 

"On the cropping side, costs are projected to be higher and there is no relief yet on the prices, so it is a little hard to see where that increase might come from. Hopefully, we will see some improved profitability in dairy and livestock agriculture."

— Jacob Swanson | Faribault Daily News