The Red River is gaining speed as the winter melt pushes it over its banks. Yet folks in Fargo are breathing a sigh of relief after days of sandbagging and weeks of worry.

The north-running river is expected to crest at about 35 feet Sunday or Monday, a level far below an earlier threat that it might hit 40 feet or more — well above major flood stage.

“That would have been really bad,” Amanda Lee, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D., said Friday. “That would have been reaching new record levels.”

Instead, Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said, the city will manage the river’s rise quite nicely, echoing those who’ve already weathered this season’s crests along the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. In nearly every case, a slow melt slowed the waters’ rise, keeping them below projected crests that had cities preparing for the worst.

In Fargo, the city has yet to use any of the 393,000 sandbags that volunteers helped fill, Mahoney said. The big flood fight will be in rural areas north and west of town, he said.

Elsewhere in North Dakota’s Cass County, rural homeowners and farmers are preparing for overland flooding that will force some to sandbag around their homes and others to use boats to get to work and school.

“The people who live here have an acute understanding of when it will flood, when they have to sandbag and what precautions they have to take,” said Robert Wilson, Cass County administrator.

There’s a domino effect as snowmelt drains into the Maple and Rush rivers, which feed into the Sheyenne. That river flows into the Red River.

“All three rivers interact with the Red,” said Cass County engineer Jason Benson. “When the Red River rises to 33 feet, water backs up into the Sheyenne River.”

And when the Sheyenne, Maple and Rush rivers spill over their banks, water spreads out across a flat landscape.

About 800 residents are in the way of the water, Benson said. The county already has delivered 80,000 sandbags to those facing flooding. Others will be stranded when roads become impassable.

“People know that they will have to jump into their four-wheelers and go a fourth of a mile down the road, where they’ll jump in a boat that will take them to a car they have there,” Benson. “Others will just plan to stay in their homes for about a week” until the water recedes.

A slower melt has some in the area feeling cautiously optimistic that the flooding won’t be as significant as projected weeks ago, Benson said.

“The flooding will be bad, but it won’t be as long,” he said. “In the past, we had people who had to boat to their homes for 45 days.”

‘You can’t stop the water’

Back in Fargo, the 75 pumps scattered across the city are keeping neighborhoods dry, and a two-year-old dike near City Hall will be tested by the rising Red River, the mayor said.

The crest is expected to linger a couple of days before it begins to drop late next week. That likely means road detours and longer commutes, he said.

Three bridges over the river that connect Fargo and Moorhead are likely to stay closed until the water recedes. “About 60 percent of the people who live in Moorhead work in Fargo,” Mahoney said. “They won’t be happy when we slow everything down. People get a little grumpy this time of year.”

But most understand if they stop to look at the Red, a lazily flowing river most other times of the year.

“What people are seeing now is the power of the river,” Mahoney said. “People begin to understand you can’t stop the water. It’s moving. Logs and debris go by. When you see all this water you have to admire the might of the river.”

That’s why city crews will stay at the ready in case anything goes wrong, he said. No one takes anything for granted until the river goes down. “Then we’re pretty much done. Then we can celebrate,” Mahoney added.

South of Fargo, in Breckenridge, Minn., Mayor Russ Wilson said the Red crested last week. “We were prepared. … I think everyone here breathed a big sigh of relief,” he said.

In East Grand Forks, Minn., the wait for the Red crest continues. It’s expected to top off at 47.7 feet on Thursday or Friday, said Mayor Steve Gander. “I think we’re golden,” he said, adding that the city, like other river towns, has taken measures such as building a levee.

As the river crests this year, it likely will force a couple of bridges to close and commutes will get longer, Gander said.

“We’ll put up with that compared to 1997, when the whole town was flooded and everyone had to evacuate for 21 days,” he said. “When you have flooding like that and now you have an extra 12 minutes on your commute, this is nothing. We’re happy up here.”