Heavy precipitation raises Red River flooding concerns

Published 8:43 am Monday, February 6, 2017

 MINNEAPOLIS — After several dry springs, communities are keeping a wary eye on the Red River in case it’s due for another flood.

The region has been soaked with double the usual amount of winter rain, sleet and snow this winter, prompting the National Weather Service to recently issue an early warning about potential spring floods. Meteorologists say there’s a risk of moderate flooding around Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks.

But community officials said they’re confident their defenses will protect their communities.

“We don’t do much of any sort of sandbagging anymore, with the flood protection system we have here,” East Grand Forks Fire Chief Gary Larson said in a press release.

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The river has flooded in 50 of the past 111 years. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the catastrophic flood of 1997, which submerged communities from Wahpeton-Breckenridge to Fargo-Moorhead to Grand Forks-East Grand Forks and beyond, inflicting billions of dollars in damage across the region.

Spring snowmelt trickles into the north-flowing Red and backs up behind ice jams in still-frozen stretches of the river downstream. But the real problem is the region’s pancake-flat terrain, which allows floodwaters to spill and spread across the prairie for miles in every direction.

“The slope of the Red River Valley is so gentle,” said Brad Hopkins with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. “It takes a long time for water to move out of the system once a flood occurs.”

If a major flood were to hit the Fargo-Moorhead area this spring, which is unlikely if the current forecast holds, it would be the first test of a new network of $105 million worth of flood control structures, including new pumping stations and some 12 miles of levees.

“The forecast is not as grave a concern as it would have been in previous years,” Moorhead City Engineer Bob Zimmerman said.

The forecast could change, however. The National Weather Service will update its flood outlook for the Red River Valley at the end of February.