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Ryan Bakken, Forum Communications, Published October 14 2012

Drought raises fears about water supply in Red River Valley

GRAND FORKS – One of the favorite stories of East Grand Forks (Minn.) Council member and historian Henry Tweten concerns the drought in the 1930s.

A dam on Red Lake in northern Minnesota was preventing the flow of drinking water to northwestern Minnesota, including East Grand Forks. One night, the Irish customers at East Grand Forks’ Lealos Bar drew lots to determine who should dynamite the dam, Tweten said. Soon after, the deed – or misdeed, to be more accurate – was done.

“It’s a true story,” Tweten said. “Everyone has kept their lips tight on who were the ones who did it all this time.”

A water shortage of that magnitude hasn’t happened since. But the Red Lake River has fallen to levels not seen since 1989. Precipitation this month has eased the low-water scare, but hasn’t eliminated the concern.

Before the snow-rain mix fell in the region in October’s first week, the East Grand Forks flow of the Red Lake River, the source of the city’s water supply, had fallen to about 40 cubic feet per second. A flow of 23 cfs triggers the city’s drought contingency plan.

“Best guess is that we were a month, maybe two at the most, away from dropping to that (23 cfs) flow before that precipitation,” said Dan Boyce, head of East Grand Forks’ Water and Light Department.

Although East Grand Forks doesn’t have a gauging station, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the Red Lake River flow before the precipitation was about 6 percent of normal for that time of the year.

While precipitation was modest in this area, it was substantial in the upper reaches of the basin, with readings of two inches. The moisture increased the flow to an estimated 11 percent of normal as of Thursday.

Emergency plan

While East Grand Forks draws its water exclusively from the Red Lake River, Grand Forks has intakes on the Red Lake and Red rivers. Since the Red at Grand Forks has had higher flows – currently 35 percent of normal – there has been less of a threat to the city’s water supply.

“But the Red Lake River has us on our toes,” said Hazel Sletten, Grand Forks water treatment superintendent. “While the Red flows are significantly better, the Red water has treatment challenges. Traditionally, we’ve treated a blend of the two.”

Each city has a drought contingency plan that kicks in when the flow drops lower than the average daily use, which is at 23 cfs.

The strategy starts with educating the public about the shortage and encouraging cutbacks, a move designed to drop usage by 10 percent. If conditions worsen, incremental steps are taken.

“They go to mandatory with increasingly tougher standards,” Boyce said. “It might go from one shower per person per day to one every other day to one once a week down to washing with a washcloth and bucket. That’s exaggerating a little, but not far from it.”

Boyce, who worked in the Grand Forks water department for 16 years before moving to East Grand Forks in 1990, said he has experienced only two sprinkling bans in the area, once in the late 1970s and once in the late 1980s.

Grand Forks’ plan is similar, with five stages that reduce water use by 5 to 10 percent each stage, Sletten said. In the last stage, water is used only “for drinking and putting out fires.”

Sletten said she is planning conferences with larger water users and some general public education near the end of this year. She cautions that the threat isn’t over despite the recent precipitation.

“If you go back to our last sustained drought, in the 1930s, some of the lowest river levels then were in February,” she said.

Missouri water

This year’s river levels have retriggered talk about a proposal to bring Missouri River water to the Red River Valley.

The proposed Red River Valley Water Supply Project would divert treated Missouri River water eastward from the McClusky Canal via a buried pipeline to Lake Ashtabula, which would act as a reservoir. From there, water would be released into the Sheyenne River and flow into the Red River. But talk has waned in the past five years along with the lack of urgency.

“It’s hard to get people excited about it when you’re in a wet cycle,” Sletten said.

Officials of the Lake Agassiz Water Authority, a group of Red River cities and rural water systems, have revived the talks with suggestions that state and local water users could pay for it, rather than rely on federal help.

Leon Osborne, a Grand Forks-based weather expert, said a shortage of water can cause more harm than a surplus.

“Flooding can be overpowering in a short time period, but you see some relief in a short time period compared to drought,” said Osborne, president of Meridian Environmental Technology and a professor with UND’s Regional Weather Info Center. “When you get into a drought, it can stick around for years and years.

“When the Red River stopped flowing in Fargo in the 1930s, one or two storms didn’t get things back to normal. It takes time.”

Flood talk

Because of a prolonged wet cycle that has caused chronic spring flooding, local and regional residents have become conditioned to embrace dry weather.

Although the low water levels and dry soils provide a cushion for spring runoff, current conditions are no guarantee of no flooding. So says Mark Ewens, climate forecaster at the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks.

“One of the factors we look for to measure flooding potential is soil moisture in the fall,” he said. “Last year at this time, the soil was really wet, yet we didn’t have a spring flood that we anticipated.

“While fall soil moisture is one factor, the biggest risk factors in the Red River Valley are the snowmelt and any precipitation at the time of the snowmelt. While the current situation is something we consider, it’s at the lower end of the scale of factors.”

Ewens said this year’s drought is just one example of how weather patterns can switch dramatically.

“Last year, Fargo was above flood stage for 150 days, until the end of August,” he said. “Holy smokes.”

Ryan Bakken writes for the Grand Forks Herald