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Heidi Shaffer, Published January 19 2011

Record-breaking flood on the way?

The chances for another record-breaking flood in Fargo-Moorhead deepened Tuesday when the National Weather Service announced its latest spring flood outlook.

The Red River at Fargo has a 20 to 25 percent chance that flood levels will reach or exceed the record crest set in 2009 and a 50 percent chance of beating last year’s crest, which was the sixth-highest on record.

The Red has a 20 percent chance of reaching 41.2 feet and a 10 percent chance of reaching 42 feet in Fargo, the weather service said. The river crested at 40.84 feet in 2009.

There’s a 50 percent chance the river will reach 37.4 feet, or nearly half a foot higher than last year’s crest of 36.95 feet. Major flood stage in Fargo is 30 feet, and the weather service predicts a 93 percent chance the Red will reach that level.

High soil moisture content and excessive snowfall and precipitation in the fall and winter signal the probability of significant flooding, said Greg Gust, weather service warning coordination meteorologist in Grand Forks.

The predictions are coming sooner than last year as meteorologists prepare for what the final part of the equation – spring melt and precipitation – will mean, Gust said.

Last year the weather service was seeing relationships in flood factors in March. This year it’s coming in mid-January, he said.

“The impact is really quite apparent, and now it’s what is going to be the timing of it that starts kicking in,” he said.

Gust compared this year’s prediction to a three-legged stool. With the first two legs – precipitation and soil moisture content – kicked out, the third factor of the spring thaw and precipitation is looking awfully wobbly, he said.

“I don’t feel good about it at all,” Gust said. “I wouldn’t want to sit on that stool.”

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the announcement is what he was expecting.

“We will continue to prepare for the worst-case scenario,” Walaker said. “It’s just a little bit too early to panic as far as I’m concerned, but it is time for prudent planning.”

Between now and thaw, it will be a waiting game to see the severity of a flood, he said.

Both Fargo and Cass County issued emergency declarations Tuesday to officially begin flood preparations for the spring.

Moorhead is also starting its flood preparations. City staff plan to ask the council on Monday for approval of about $550,000 to start lining up materials, equipment and leasing agreements, said City Manager Michael Redlinger.

Moorhead has made $34 million worth of improvements since 2009, so flood-fighting in the future should be easier, he said.

Mayor Mark Voxland said March 1 is a reasonable date to start sandbag filling, barring any major changes to the forecast.

The Red River Basin is poised to receive twice its normal snowfall through the end of the winter, Gust said. To compound the problem, most of the same area received 10 to 12 inches above normal rainfall during the summer and fall, he said.

Walaker said spring rainfall played a significant role in 2009 and 2010.

“The rain is what is really a factor that can change the runoff rate, and that’s what really is the scary part of everything,” Walaker said.

Based on climatic outlooks, this spring is likely to be cooler and spring thaw could come later than the past couple of years, Gust said.

If the melt comes in April, warmer temperatures can lead to a rapid runoff, which happened in 1997, Walaker said.

“Are we going to have that again? Well, we have to prepare for that,” he said.

The next updated flood forecast is set to be released Feb. 3.

Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report

Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511