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Major spring Red River flooding expected

Jeff Caldwell 01/19/2011 @ 10:12am Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

The temperature Wednesday morning in Grand Forks, North Dakota, was -6 degrees Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -28. Temps like that make it tough to envision when all that ice and snow will be flowing freely once things thaw out this spring.

But, if the National Weather Service (NWS) is right, that water will be flowing a lot harder -- endangering much of the Red River Valley -- this spring. The NWS office in Grand Forks released its "Probabilistic Hydrologic Outlook" Tuesday, the forecast for potential flooding in the Red River area, including eastern North Dakota and parts of Minnesota.



The news isn't the best: There's a "better than even chance" of moderate or major flooding in much of the Red River Valley this spring.

"Major flooding is expected on all forecast locations on the mainstem of the Red River of the North and on many forecast locations on its Minnesota and North Dakota tributaries," according to the NWS report issued Tuesday. "Wet soils before freeze-up...high river base flows...above-normal snow water in the southern snowpack and expected cooler and wetter spring have increased the probabilities of significant flooding in the Red River basin."

As an example, the NWS report indicates the flood stage of the Red River in Wahpeton, North Dakota, is 10 feet. There's a 90% chance the river will reach almost 14 feet at that location.

Numbers like that are being taken seriously now, even though the likely flooding is 2-3 months away, says NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist in Grand Forks, Gregory Gust. On Tuesday, government officials in Cass County, North Dakota, and Clay County, Minnesota, already declared local states of emergency "in anticipation of a flood that is still 60 to 90 days in the future," Gust says.

"A state declaration has already been signed for the Devils Lake Basin in North Dakota, with paperwork now in the works toward a Presidential declaration," he adds. "Southeastern North Dakota, including the community of Fargo, is pursuing a similar track."

Multiple causes

The snow's the obvious culprit of the flooding outlook, Tuesday's NWS report shows, but the river's already flowing briskly after last fall's heavier-than-normal rainfall. So, when the snow begins to melt, look out.

"Storms tracking over the northern Great Plains led to a rainy fall and the buildup of snowpack over the winter so far, especially in the southern Basin," according to Tuesday's NWS report. "Four to 5 inches of snow water already exists in the snow pack south of a line from Valley City to Fargo to Fergus Falls. However, 2 inches of snow water is evident in the rest of the Valley north of Hillsboro. Base flows are high for this time of the year on the Red River and most of its tributaries."

A persisting La Nina weather pattern is behind many of the conditions leading up to what will likely be a waterlogged spring in the northern Plains. La Nina, according to NWS, causes above-normal snowfall and "generally below-normal temperatures.

"So far, this winter, the more classic La Nina impacts have been evident across the Red River Valley and Devils Lake basins," according to Tuesday's report. "There is an enhanced risk for below-normal temperatures to continue through the February, March and April time period. There is also an enhanced risk for above-normal precipitation during the late winter and early spring months of March, April and May."

Be prepared

Though the flooding will originate in the rivers, it won't be confined to the flood plain areas surrounding the waterways, but will be more widespread, Gust says. "Whereas individual communities may be able to achieve protection from flooding by the main river systems, there is likely to be widespread breakout and overland flooding affecting the landscape and our largely rural populations due to the pre-existing wet soil conditions and the now excessive snowpack," he says.

So, with those conditions in play, Gust says rural residents, farmers and ranchers should "begin preparing for a flood which could affect areas that they have never seen flood before." That means coordinating with local emergency services and safety personnel, as well as prepare plans for if or when flood waters hit. Also, all residents in the potentially affected areas should make sure they have adequate flood insurance, Gust adds.

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