FARGO — The highest potential crest level for a spring flood on the Red River dipped in the latest flood outlook, but forecasters caution that the risk for significant snow-melt runoff remains "substantial" with a wet late winter and spring expected.

In a good news, bad news presentation, the National Weather Service said Thursday, Feb. 13, there's a 5% chance the Red River at Fargo-Moorhead could crest at 39.9 feet. That's down from a 5% risk of a crest of 40.6 feet predicted in the initial spring flood outlook issued on Jan. 23.

The dip in possible flood level means Fargo-Moorhead now faces a 5% chance of fighting a flood similar to the 1997 flood, 39.72 feet, instead of one comparable to the record 2009 flood, 40.84 feet.

"The risk for significant snowmelt flooding continues to be substantial, running above long-term historical averages across the Red River and Devils Lake Basins," the weather service outlook advised.

Thousands of sandbags line both sides of South River Road in Fargo in 1997 near Lindenwood Park as they wait to be transported to the nearby permanent earthen dike already in place along the Red River. Each pallet contained 60 to 70 sandbags. Forum file photo
Thousands of sandbags line both sides of South River Road in Fargo in 1997 near Lindenwood Park as they wait to be transported to the nearby permanent earthen dike already in place along the Red River. Each pallet contained 60 to 70 sandbags. Forum file photo

The good news: Not much has changed since the last outlook, weather service hydrologist Amanda Lee said. There were no significant storms since the last outlook, meaning the region was spared any additional moisture from precipitation.

A ground blizzard that hindered travel on Wednesday, Feb. 12, produced little snow, if at all, Lee said. Overall, precipitation has been "a bit below normal" since a Jan. 17-18 storm.

The bad news: Not much has changed since the last outlook. The Red River Valley still had one of its wettest falls on record, and a top-five historical flood is still in the cards, Lee said.

“We are starting to run out of winter, but we still have spring,” she said.

Some factors have yet to be determined when it comes to predicting spring flooding, Lee added. Meteorologists don't know how much rain the Red River Valley will see in the upcoming months, nor do they know how fast the snow will melt.

Most of the valley likely will see moderate to major flooding, the weather service predicts, though that probability begins to lessen for cities in the far northern basin.

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Frost depths remain shallow, though "quite variable," the weather service said. That means the soils should thaw more quickly, allowing the ground to absorb some of the melt. But "very wet soils" from record or near-record fall precipitation throughout the Red River Valley will exacerbate the spring flood, according to forecasters.

Also, the winter snowpack and snow-water equivalent are well above normal, ranging from 2.5 to 5 inches. Warm weather in recent weeks has melted snow and slightly opened some rivers, but for the most part, that moisture doesn't have anywhere to go since the ground is still frozen, Lee said.

In his outlook for late February, WDAY Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler expects the period should be mostly dry in the region, with no signs of significant precipitation. He expects a warmup, possibly followed by another shot of arctic air at the end of the month.

Weather models favor below-normal precipitation levels for the coming weeks in southeast North Dakota. Meteorologists see little sign that any major storm systems will move into the area in the next week or so, Lee said.

But the three-month outlook leans toward colder and wetter probabilities, she said.