FARGO — A persistent lull in snowfall as winter wanes has resulted in a new flood outlook for the Red River in the Fargo-Moorhead area that gives a slightly lower risk assessment than two earlier predictions for severe crests.
The latest outlook, issued by the National Weather Service on Thursday, Feb. 27, determines that the Red River in Fargo now faces a 5% chance of reaching 39.1 feet.
A 39.1-foot flood would equal the third-highest Fargo flood on record, which dates back to 1897. The 1997 flood crested at 39.72 feet.
The latest outlook is down from the previous one, issued on Feb. 13, that predicted Fargo-Moorhead had a 5% chance of fighting a 39.9-foot flood, a 50% likelihood of 35.6 feet and a 95% chance of confronting 31.8 feet.
The latest outlook predicts Fargo has a 95% chance of fighting at least a 32-foot flood, with a 90% chance of 32.5 feet, a 75% chance of 33.7 feet, a 50% chance of 34.8 feet, a 25% chance of 36.2 feet and a 10% risk of a 38.5-foot flood.
"This spring the outlooks are still sitting in the top 10, possibly top five territory," meteorologist Greg Gust said. Soil conditions throughout the valley are "pretty much as wet as we've ever seen," he said.
But six weeks of dry weather have made a difference. Fargo has dropped to the fifth-wettest period on record from Sept. 1 through Feb. 25, Gust said, with 11.7 inches of moisture, compared to 13.95 inches in 2009 during that time frame.
The initial spring flood outlook, issued on Jan. 23, gave Fargo a 5% chance of confronting a 40.6-foot crest, which would be slightly lower than the record 40.84-foot crest in 2009.
The slightly reduced flood levels in the latest outlook reflect below-normal precipitation that has prevailed over the last six weeks, forecasters said.
The climate outlooks no longer indicate the risk for a cooler and wetter late winter and early spring, but March weather will "likely remain a big risk factor, as it always is."
Forecasters added: "Climate outlooks have no clear signal: wet, dry, or normal."
The latest climate outlook, although uncertain, is "quasi good news," Gust said, since the wetter potential has been lifted from the outlook.
Still, because of a very wet fall and early winter, "the risk for substantial snowmelt flooding continues to be substantial, running above long-term averages across the Red River and Devils Lake basins."
WDAY Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler's weather outlook through mid-March predicts the generally dry weather pattern will continue.
Overall, the flood outlook has not changed much from the initial Jan. 23 outlook, the weather service said. "Very wet soils and high base streamflows persist," with snowpack and the moisture content in snow still at or above normal, leading to a high spring runoff potential.
The Wild Rice, Sheyenne and Maple rivers in North Dakota face "much higher runoff risk" and the northern-most Minnesota tributaries have the wettest soils, but a somewhat lesser snowpack.
The flood risk throughout the Red River Valley is exacerbated by a potentially delayed thaw.
The latest outlook results in slightly reduced severity of possible flooding throughout much of the valley:
Red River at Fargo-Moorhead: Forecasters expect mid to high major flooding that could mean placement of floodwall gates and closure of some bridges. The 50% probability flood is close to last year's flood, which crested at 35.03 feet.
Red River at Wahpeton-Breckenridge: Forecasters expect moderate flooding, with the 50% probability comparable to the spring flood of 2019.
Wild Rice River at Abercrombie: The outlook calls for mid to high major flooding, with the 50% probability close to the 2019 flood.
Sheyenne River at Valley City: Forecasters expect the river to reach major flood stage, with possible floodwall and bridge closures and emergency levee construction.
Sheyenne River at Harwood: Major flooding similar to last year is expected, with water touching the railroad bridge and Interstate 29. "North of Fargo-Moorhead a lot of breakout flow is expected," Gust said.
Red River at Grand Forks-East Grand Forks: A major flood is expected, with floodwall gate placement. The 50% probability flood is greater than the 2019 flood.
Now that winter is leaving the stage, spring weather will play a crucial factor in the severity of the spring flood, Gust said.
"We know March can be highly variable," he said. "Stay tuned."
Leaders for Fargo, West Fargo and Cass County gathered Thursday afternoon at Fargo City Hall to sign spring flood emergency declarations. The declarations give departments and agencies the ability to take actions to manage and recover from the potential impacts of spring flooding.
"This is a serious flood forecast, and we'll meet it with a serious response," Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney said.
Fargo and Cass County will jointly operate Sandbag Central at the Fargo Solid Waste Department, 2301 8th Ave. N., with the goal of filling 400,000 sandbags. Volunteers are asked to help. The sandbag operation will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., March 10 through March 13.
That will mean filling 100,000 sandbags per day. "We should be able to meet that goal," Mahoney said. About 200,000 sandbags remain from last year and are in reserve, but are being stored outside and would have to be thawed before they could be placed, he said.