Months of drought and declining river flows mean little risk of spring flooding across Minnesota and the Dakotas, a dramatic departure from recent years of repeated battles against historic river crests.

"Like night and day," said Jim Kaiser, a National Weather Service forecaster in Grand Forks, N.D., comparing spring outlooks with last year, when near-record flooding was a virtual certainty at Fargo-Moorhead and sandbags and barricades were sprouting in many of the region's other riverside cities.

In the outlook released Thursday by the Weather Service, the Red River was given a better than 50 percent chance of minor flooding at Fargo through the end of April. But even that 18-foot crest would cause little notice in Fargo-Moorhead, where the Red reached a record 40.8 feet in 2009 and has seen six of its eight highest crests since 1997.

In the Twin Cities metro area, where some major commuting roads and bridges were closed over the past two years, the Mississippi River at St. Paul, the Minnesota at Savage and the St. Croix at Stillwater have little chance of reaching even minor flood stages, according to Weather Service hydrologists. Minor flood stage would have little public impact.

"I know everybody in this community needs a year off," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. "Normally, it's 10 years or so between major events, but we've had three in a row."

"It's a nice psychological break," said Steve Jones, city manager in Montevideo in western Minnesota, which has similarly scrambled to pile up sandbags and clay against the Minnesota River the past three springs. "We're used to it, but it's a nice break for the staff and the community and for the people who are threatened by it not to have to deal with it."

Able to do other jobs

Without having to prepare for floods -- or plow the snow that contributes to them -- cities and other public agencies have been able to accomplish other tasks in recent months. Walaker said Fargo has been able to finish its promised street-paving projects. Montevideo has continued work on long-term levee improvements. St. Paul, having finished flood cleanups last fall, has been pressing ahead to complete getting federal reimbursement of the $1 million it paid out for emergency measures and cleanup last spring, said Rick Larkin, the city's director of emergency management.

The reasons for the turnaround have been obvious: little rain or snow across the region since August, and temperatures well above average. By contrast, after an extremely wet fall in 2010, Minnesota was covered by 1 to 3 feet of snow on Jan. 20, 2011. On Jan. 19 this year, about half the state had less than 1 inch of snow; most of the rest had less than 4 inches, according to the state DNR climatology department.

One year ago, Fargo had received about 57 inches of snow for the season; as of Thursday, the total for this season stood at 10.6.

Most rivers, beneath ice cover, are running at or below historical medians. That includes the Red, which was approaching its median flow Thursday -- a figure it hasn't dropped to since August 2006.

Diane Cooper, a hydrologist with the North Central River Forecast Center, an arm of the Weather Service, said recent cold weather caused frost to form in soils, creating some uncertainty about whether any snow or rain to come would run off quickly into rivers, or soak into the soil.

Outlooks from the national Climate Prediction Center indicate a trend toward above-normal temperatures for February for much of Minnesota. For February through April, the agency said, models are noncommittal on both temperature and precipitation.

Deep snow and sudden rain are always possible, Cooper said. She reminded residents along the state's rivers to renew flood insurance policies; letting them lapse requires policyholders to wait 30 days for a new policy, which could be critical if a flood were imminent.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646