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Fewer sandbags needed in light of 'perfect melt' in Fargo; volunteers still sought

City worker Dave Rheault wraps a pallet of sandbags a few hours before operations come to a close Friday, March 29, at Fargo’s Sandbag Central due to an improved flood forecast. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 1 / 4
The National Weather Service forecast calls for the Red Rive to reach minor flood stage in Fargo on Sunday and to reach 23 feet early Thursday. Special to The Forum2 / 4
The Red River churns through the dam by Trefoil Park in Fargo on Monday, March 25. The river, still ice-covered in stretches, likely won’t fully break open here this week as freezing temperatures continue to delay a spring thaw, weather service meteorologist Greg Gust said. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
The National Weather Service forecast calls for the Red Rive to reach minor flood stage in Fargo on Sunday and to reach 23 feet early Thursday. Special to The Forum4 / 4

FARGO — Favorable melting conditions have caused Fargo leaders to drop their flood protection levels by two feet and plan to build emergency levees capable of holding back a crest of 39 feet on the Red River.

The announcement on Friday, March 29, followed a flood outlook briefing by the National Weather Service that said the gradual melt that's helping to subdue flood levels along the river should continue.

"It's fantastic news," Mayor Tim Mahoney said. "It's a perfect melt. I don't know how that happened."

The city of Fargo had been planning to build emergency levees to fight a potential 41-foot crest. "We'll drop two feet," Mahoney said. The city's record crest of 40.84 feet was set in 2009.

The weather service said conditions now suggest a maximum flood of about 38.9 feet, which was the 25 percent probability given in a flood forecast on March 15. Since then the area has received little or no precipitation and a gradual melt — but much of the snow pack has yet to melt, and there still is a risk of heavy precipitation.

Building to a protection level of 39 feet would accommodate heavy rains of 1 to 2 inches, Mahoney said.

Fargo officials expected volunteers to have filled 400,000 sandbags by the end of Friday. That number would allow the city to "fully execute its 39-foot protection plan," according to the city.

Fargo engineers will work through the weekend to modify public flood maps and plans, which will be discussed at the Fargo-Cass County public flood meeting Monday, April 1, at 8 a.m. in the commission chambers at Fargo City Hall.

Neighborhood meetings scheduled for April 1 and 2 will be held as planned.

"The flood of 2019 is not over and we cannot be complacent," Mahoney said in a statement. "Today, however, we express appreciation to the volunteers, civic groups and city employees who play such a vital role in Fargo's flood fight."

Similarly, Cass County officials announced that they expect a lower risk of flooding in rural areas and a reduced need for sandbags to protect residents, given the favorable melting conditions.

The county now estimates 150,000 sandbags will be needed — half of its previous plan to fill 300,000 sandbags.

The county is still seeking volunteers Saturday through Wednesday at the Cass County Highway Department, 1201 Main Ave. W. in West Fargo. The need for volunteers beyond Wednesday will be assessed next week.

Some rural flooding is still anticipated based on predicted crests of the Sheyenne and Maple rivers, and changes in weather patterns may affect that, county officials said.

The city of Moorhead said it may need fewer sandbags in light of the new river level projections.

Moorhead's revised plan is to still have volunteers fill sandbags Saturday. But at 3 p.m. Saturday, production will be suspended for the rest of the weekend and Monday.

Depending on conditions, sandbag-filling may resume Tuesday at the Sandbag Operations Center, 1313 30th Ave. S. in Moorhead, city officials said.

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Flood fighters still must deal with uncertainty, including the possibility the area could receive between a quarter to a half inch of moisture late next week, according to Greg Gust, a weather service meteorologist who gave Friday's flood outlook briefing.

The Red River is forecast to reach minor flood stage Sunday, March 31, and continue to rise to 23 feet, where it will plateau for several days before likely continuing its rise as the gradual spring thaw progresses.

The Red River, which crept above 16.5 feet early Friday, will climb to 18.4 feet on Sunday, entering minor flood stage, which begins at 18 feet.

Moderate flood stage begins at 25 feet, and major flood stage starts at 30 feet. At a level of 23 feet, the North Broadway bridge floods.

Although the Red River is expected to plateau at 23 feet for several days, "additional rises are possible thereafter," the weather service warned.

The runoff will slow over the weekend as temperatures drop, but the melting will resume next week with a modest warmup, continuing the gradual thaw that has prevailed this spring.

"We're taking a little bit of water off right now," which is decreasing the risk of reaching extreme levels on the Red River that could rival or exceed the record 2009 flood, Gust said.

In a spring thaw update issued Thursday, the weather service said current conditions suggest a probable spring flood in Fargo-Moorhead ranging from 33.8 feet to 36.5 feet, but a higher crest is possible if the area receives heavy rains.

The weather service issued a flood warning for Cass and Clay counties and said ongoing flooding in Wahpeton-Breckenridge will reach Fargo-Moorhead next week. "Another snowmelt rise is expected beginning the second week of April," the weather service said.

"The future snowmelt rise is highly dependent on when temperatures warm up enough to continue snowmelt in the area, especially southeastern North Dakota where the snowpack is still firmly in place."

The weather service urges residents of the Red River Valley to avoid travel in flooded areas and to take steps to "protect life and property." The current flood forecast is for seven days. Forecasts are updated daily, and flood-stage predictions will change, forecasters advise.

Patrick Springer

Patrick Springer first joined the reporting staff of The Forum in 1985. He can be reached by calling 701-241-5522. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com

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