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Patrick Springer, Published February 06 2012

Red River flows well above average despite driest fall-winter on record

FARGO - The Red River’s volume of water is flowing at more than twice its long-term average this winter despite months of abnormally dry weather.

But the flows are less than a third of last winter’s gushing volume as of Feb. 1, as the area experiences its driest winter on record to date.

The above-normal flows on the Red River, Missouri River and many other rivers in the region are a lingering effect of last year’s record water volumes.

“2011 was the biggest flood year that we’ve seen in the area and the region,” Greg Gust, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said Monday. “It was a record year for North Dakota. It was a record year for much of the northern Plains.”

Last year saw the record flood on the Missouri River in Bismarck, and the fourth-highest peak flows on the Red River in Fargo as well as the third-highest in Grand Forks.

But because record flows persisted through the summer and fall, the year finished as the highest “water year” on record for the Red, Missouri and many rivers in the region, according to the National Weather Service.

“It takes more than one year to get all of that water out of the system,” Gust said. “You’re still dealing with that carryover. That’s what you’re seeing now.”

Last year’s record wet year for many rivers, in turn reflected almost 20 years of mostly wet weather in the region.

“I’d say the landscape is still holding a lot of moisture,” said Chris Laveau, a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Grand Forks. “That’s why we’re still seeing the higher levels.”

The Red River Valley is experiencing short-term, moderate drought conditions. Fargo, for example, has received 12 inches of snow this winter.

That’s 20.2 inches below normal. By comparison, last year Fargo’s total snow stood at 59.2 inches by now.

So far this fall and winter are even drier than the driest fall-winter on record, 1958-59, said Adnan Akyuz, the state climatologist for North Dakota. And the dry winter follows the fourth driest fall on record.

In order to finish with “normal” snowfall, Fargo would have to see 38.1 more inches of snow. “And the forecast is not really showing that,” Akyuz said.

The upshot is the upper layer of soil is dry, and therefore can accept moisture, if and when it comes.

“We can absorb even higher-than-normal precipitation coming into spring,” Akyuz said.

Gust agreed, and added, “This is a skin-layer drought.” Although the top two inches or so are dry, subsoils remain wet.

“We’ve recovered some wetland storage,” Gust said.

The outlook for spring, however, calls for normal or above normal precipitation for the area, so the dry spell could end.

Both Gust and Akyuz agreed it is too early to predict an end the wet cycle that has prevailed for almost 20 years in the region.

“This could just be a little bump in the road,” Akyuz said of the recent dryness.

“Right now there isn’t a lot suggesting the wet period is gone,” Gust said.

Long-term climate predictions, in fact, predict the area will see wetter conditions, mainly in winter and spring.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522