Northern valley towns taking no chances with lower flood risk
GRAFTON -- Construction crews are working overtime to build an 18-foot levee along the Park River in Grafton to prevent damage from what could be a record flood.
The work continues, even as confidence spreads around the community that, partly based on recently lowered flood forecasts for the southern half of the Red River Valley, this year's spring flood will not be as severe as originally forecast.
"Until we hear different, we're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best," Walsh County Emergency Manager Brent Nelson said late Thursday afternoon. "At the moment, we still have a 15- to 17-foot forecast."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began raising the city's levee system Wednesday. By afternoon Thursday, much of the dirt had been hauled in from a borrow pit just north of town. The project is expected to be completed by Sunday.
"Some people in town are thinking there's not going to be much flooding, because if you look around town and within five miles of town, there's not a lot of snow," he said. "But if you go west, there's still a lot of snow. And it all could start moving this weekend."
The Park River consists of three branches -- the north, middle and south -- which all converge into one just outside Grafton on the way to the Red River.
In most years, at least one of the branches starts flowing either before or after the others, so the peak flows are staggered as they reach Grafton, he said.
However, with weekend temperatures expected to reach into the 50s and 60s for the first time this spring, all three are likely to hit peak flows at the same time, he said.
"The mystery is how fast is that water going to come, and how much will soak into the ground," he said. "At this point, we just don't have the answer to that. The next couple of days will tell us a lot."
Meanwhile, about nine miles to the south, Minto High School students spent Thursday outdoors. But this was no spring picnic.
They volunteered to fill some 3,000 sandbags, which were being distributed around the community to help residents prevent flooding from the Forest River, which flows through the south end of town.
While the river level was only at about 2 feet during the day -- about 4 feet below flood stage -- the National Weather Service has forecast a 50-50 chance that the river will swell to 9.6 feet this spring.
"We've been told there's a potential of hitting 10.6 feet," Mayor Lane Kelly said. "We're trying to get ahead of it."
The record flood in Minto is 11.8 feet, set in 1948.
While this year's flood is not expected to challenge that mark, anything approaching 8 feet is cause for concern. Flood stage is 6 feet and major flood stage is 11 feet.
However, the Forest River begins to flow over U.S. Highway 81 on the south side of Minto at about 7.5 feet, according to the mayor.
City officials plan to use a balloon-like temporary dike to keep water off the highway as long as possible, he said.
The city has enough sand to produce about 4,000 sandbags, and that project might continue until that number is reached.
But officials are not expecting the students to be back for more manual labor today. The school prom is tonight.
"They're awesome help," the mayor said. "We couldn't do it without them."