Red River's crest drops as flood fight fizzles
FARGO -- The city could be in flood cleanup mode as early as next week as the expected crest of the Red River continues to drop and the flood of 2013 fizzles away.
National Weather Service forecasters now predict the river to peak at 35.5 feet on Wednesday, a foot and a half lower than the 37-foot crest predicted Sunday.
A crest of 35.5 feet would be the ninth-largest on record - about a foot less than flooding in 2001, and just above the crest in 1989. The record crest in Fargo is 40.84 feet, set in 2009.
Last week, the city built protections up to 40 feet by laying only 10 percent of the 1.1 million sandbags made earlier this spring when forecasters said the Red this year had a 40 percent of topping the 2009 flood.
Now with the projected lower levels, it's unlikely that a single sandbag thrown within the city will even get wet, said City Engineer April Walker.
"Absolutely, it can be frustrating," she said. "But at the same time, it's way better to be prepared than to have the crest rise and not be prepared for that."
A lower crest on the Wild Rice River, which feeds into the Red, has allowed forecasters to lower the crest for the Red even further, the weather service said. The weather service notes in the outlook that the crest could still come in lower than 35.5 feet.
The river was at 32.1 feet just after 6 p.m. Monday. It is expected to stay above the major flood stage of 30 feet into early next week, the outlook says.
The Red River in Hickson was projected to crest Monday night at 34.5 feet, a half-foot above moderate flood stage there, the weather service said.
Between Fargo and Grand Forks, about a quarter to three-quarters inch of rain is expected into today, with isolated areas getting one inch, but most of that should miss Fargo, said Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service.
"Fargo's looking good," Gust said. "We just have to dodge rain for another day or two. Piece of cake."
City Administrator Pat Zavoral said at Monday night's City Commission meeting that the city has spent $1.8 million dollars on this flood fight, and that number is still going up.
Fargo spent $8.4 million fighting the flood in 2009, $3.5 million in 2010, and $6.4 million in 2011, Zavoral said.
Mayor Dennis Walaker said it's "extremely early" in the process for residents to be concerned about the price of this flood fight.
"To be critical of what was spent, to me, is from people that don't understand what a flood fight is all about," Walaker said. "If we fail, we'd be in the billions of dollars."
Many 'high and dry'
Citywide levees will stay in place until the city is "very sure" that the crest is gone, Walker said, meaning sandbags will remain in the neighborhoods at least until early next week.
Sand from the bags already in place will be recycled and used by the city, such as to line the cells at the city's landfill, Walker said. Bags that still are on pallets can be stored and used in future flood fights.
Those 200,000-some sandbags still on the berm in many Fargo neighborhoods could be removed by this Friday, said Terry Ludlum, the city's solid waste utility director.
The Second Street dike, constructed over the weekend, has to stay in place until the river is below 30 feet, Walker said.
Averaging from years past, Walker said it'll cost about $165,000 to remove the half-mile Second Street levee. In general, it costs about $330,000 a mile to remove clay levees, she said. The city has not yet tallied the total cost of deploying sandbags this year, Walker said.
Gust said an optimal and "agonizingly slow" snowmelt scenario - which seemed improbable a month ago - has been a crucial part in diminishing the flood, as it allowed water to soak into the ground in the southern basin and not runoff into tributaries.
"Somehow, that scenario has managed to play out," Gust said. "And it took a month of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw."
Gust said overland flooding is occurring in areas close to the Buffalo, Wild Rice and Red river channels, but unlike prior floods, the Maple and Rush rivers are "behaving" this year.
The Sheyenne River at Harwood is out of its bank, but it's still expected to crest at 888 feet late this week, 3 feet below major flood stage there, Gust said.
Many rural Cass County residents have chosen to keep sandbags on pallets, and overland flooding and road washouts have not been a major issue this year, said county Administrator Keith Berndt.
"Most houses are high and dry," he said.
Berndt said he hoped residents were not being overly critical of the weather service, because heavy rainfall or a not-so-perfect melt could've easily made this flood as severe as forecasters initially expected.
"I think they did a very good job," Berndt said of the weather service.
Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said over the weekend, five homes put up sandbag levees, and bags were dropped off at three others.
Some streets will likely be closing in the downtown area near the Center Mall and Hjemkomst Center as the river nears 35 feet, but that is typically for any spring, Redlinger said.
Jeff Schaumann, chairman of the Oakport Township board, said he has not witnessed any sandbag dikes going up in Oakport. He said the township has taken all the necessary steps to protect to 35.5 feet.
Flooding not over yet
Gust said the flood fight is "not over just yet" for the northern Red River Basin, which could see the effects of rainfall from Monday and today.
"There is still significant snowmelt runoff underway" in the north, Gust said. "And soils are still thawing."
He said the initial runoff and threat for severe flooding in the northern basin should be over in another week, and the lowered crest in Fargo will reduce pressure on those northern communities, like Halstad, Grand Forks, Oslo and Pembina.
Fargo is now looking forward to permanent protection, Walker said.
The city's home buyout wish list is 180 houses long, and around 25 of those homeowners accepted an accelerated buyout offer from the city earlier this month when forecasters were predicting a record flood.
Walker said she hopes this odd year of flooding can be a learning tool for future events.
"We've had a great melt, which was not anticipated. But yeah, we hope that we can get better," she said. "We hope that the weather service can take this into account with their next flood prediction."