Region is armed with sandbags -- and an appreciation for the unusual geology of a river that seems designed to flood.
As National Guard troops patrolled dikes and as the backbreaking work of placing half a million sandbags neared its culmination in Moorhead, Minn., on Thursday, Red River Valley residents looked to the rising water and rain-bearing skies in preparation for Sunday's high-water mark.
But local officials and residents sounded confident that their experience will be much like those other cities across the region have had with recent high water -- a few million well-placed sandbags holding off yet another historic-level crest.
"We've really had some things going our way," Moorhead City Manager Michael Redlinger said Thursday, citing the slow melt of a prodigious snowpack, plenty of warning and weeks of preparation.
In Moorhead, the task of placing about 500,000 sandbags will be finished Friday, complementing 3.3 miles of temporary clay dikes. Neighboring Fargo, N.D., expects to have about 630,000 sandbags in dikes Friday. That would leave unused about 3.5 million sandbags both cities have filled since mid-February.
But Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said residents need to be wary of continuing high water. After Sunday's crest, the river may drop only about a foot by next Thursday, according to the latest prediction from the National Weather Service. And rain, expected this weekend, could slow that drop.
"We've had plenty of time to add to our defenses, but we are concerned about the top end," Walaker said. "We need to continue to be extremely vigilant, even after it crests."
Much like a hangover from the wet fall and snowy winter, high water has been a problem for cities along all of Minnesota's major rivers this spring. On Thursday, those on the front lines of flooding on the Mississippi, Minnesota, St. Croix and Crow had one eye on imminent or coming crests and the other on the sky. But all in all, most areas were well-prepared.
The Red is the only river whose predicted crests have not dropped steadily. This is expected to be the third straight year with a crest that will wind up in the top five in a record that goes back to the 19th century.
"The thing about it happening so often is that you have a very good knowledge base," said Ann Marie Campbell, communications director for Fargo's Oak Grove Lutheran School for the past six years, five of which included floods. "In some respects, it becomes a nonissue.
"The city as a whole has been very well prepared," Campbell added. "We've been talking about it so long at school and in the greater community that it almost feels good it's happening. Let's get it done."
Most of the time, the Red is just a small stream at the bottom of a ravine that winds through the landscape like a cornered mouse. "Puny," Campbell called it.
But its recent history suggests it has become the region's top flooding headache, even more so than the larger rivers to the east and south. Hydrologists point first to freakish increases in rain and snow over nearly 20 years across the Dakotas and northwest Minnesota as the primary cause. Five of Fargo's top seven crests have come since 1997; downstream at Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, it's been four of the top seven, including the 1997 catastrophe that caused $3.5 billion in damage along the river. Meanwhile, Fargo-Moorhead remains both the largest metro area along the U.S. side of the Red, and the last one without permanent flood protection.
Which way is downhill?
The Red seems simply designed to flood, particularly in a rainy epoch.
As the last traces of glacial Lake Agassiz, the river is still too "young" to have carved a respectable valley that might better handle a flood, said North Dakota State University geology Prof. Donald Schwert. As a result, it rolls near the surface of the former Lake Agassiz lakebed, struggling to gain momentum along a course that drops about 6 inches a mile over 545 miles, from Breckenridge to Winnipeg. That northward course is also a curse; most springs, snowmelt runs into ice downstream, which is north.
Fargo and Moorhead leaders, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, believe they have hit on a solution: a 25-mile ditch around the metro area that would divert floodwater. But concerns about flooding downstream have already forced one redesign, while the pricetag has risen from an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.7 billion. Once approved, the project could take 10 years to complete. In that stretch, more rain and snow are in the forecast.
"I have a lot of empathy for the Red River," Schwert said. "It's just a little river that struggles with the absence of a gradient, and it's doing the best job it can. The best thing we can do is pull away and let it accomplish that, and [Fargo and Moorhead] are, indeed, pulling back."
Schwert has lived in Fargo since 1978. Approaching retirement, he recently went to look at homes in the mountainous, wooded, lake-dotted countryside of his native upstate New York. But he decided he likes Fargo, flods and all.
"This is a rotten place to put a city," he said, noting not only the flooding frequency but a pudding-like clay that is a problem for major buildings. After the railroad came through, though, people followed, and "no one's going to pick them up and move them now," he added.
"The people are resilient," he said. "In other cities, people panic. Here, people simply gather together and work for our city. They live with this very interesting and problematic geology here, but they find their happiness in other things. We like it."
Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646