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Published March 12 2013

Understudy in tow, Fargo mayor makes crest predictions for spring on annual pre-flood tour of valley

FARGO - As a cold wind whipped against the back of his head Tuesday afternoon, Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker let his eyes confirm what his ears had already heard.

“That’s a good flow,” he said, watching a current rush through White Rock Dam on the South Dakota-Minnesota border about 70 miles south of Fargo.

For more than 20 years, Walaker has toured the southern Red River Valley to gauge how much water the north-flowing river will eventually try to cram through Fargo-Moorhead.

He cobbles his observations into a spring flood prediction that’s become almost folklore – most notably in 2009, when he downplayed the National Weather Service’s revised flood forecast of 43 feet and stuck with the earlier forecast of 41 feet for which Fargo had prepared.

The river crested on March 28 of that year at a record 40.84 feet.

Just 80 minutes into Tuesday’s tour, after crossing the North Dakota-South Dakota border and seeing snow piled 3 feet high in spots along Interstate 29, Walaker was ready to make his crest prediction for this spring.

“If I was going to pick a figure right now, it’d probably be 32 feet,” he said.

In the past, Walaker always rode solo on his pre-flood trips. But this year, Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney asked to tag along on the 190-mile round trip.

Mahoney, a general and vascular surgeon at Essentia Health in Fargo, said he has a scientific bent but has always wanted to observe Walaker’s process.

“It’s always fun when you kind of put science and art together,” he said.

12:56 p.m.

Walaker arrives early at Essentia to pick up Mahoney and goes inside to have the surgeon paged.

Mahoney eventually emerges from the hospital wearing his trademark fluorescent yellow vest and carrying his “measuring stick” – a wooden staff he first brought to a 2009 flood meeting to lighten the mood.

Mahoney taps the stick on the sidewalk like he’s measuring water. Walaker, sitting in his city-issued Ford Explorer, chuckles.

“He’s so full of (it),” he says.

1:01 p.m.

Walaker heads south on I-29 and takes note of the corn stalks sticking up above the snow line. He estimates 5 or 6 inches of snow in the fields.

The mayor says he talks to people from areas south of Fargo about snow depth, but conversation is no substitute for observation.

“I’m just one of those guys that has to see it,” he says. “I just don’t believe statistics without having a feeling for it.”

1:13 p.m.

As wind-driven ground snow sticks to I-29, Walaker keeps the Explorer cruising along at a careful 55 mph or less as he looks out the windows.

“I don’t get concerned about how much snow is in the shelterbelts,” he says. “If the ditches are clogged, that’s a good thing, because that’s retention.”

The culverts may be frozen shut, but the ditches have a lot more room to hold snow than in 2009, when the snow was level with the road, he notes.

1:17 p.m.

The Explorer passes the Kindred exit. This is as far south as Walaker has been this spring, and he thinks about how much farther he’d like to go.

“In fact, we could go to Sioux Falls, watch the Bison game,” he jokes.

He talks about his ideal melting process, with daytime temperatures in the 30s and freezing at night.

“Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen until the end of March,” he says.

What he’s more concerned about is spring rain that can speed the process and swell rivers even more.

But he has reason for optimism.

“Never in my history have I ever seen the ground as dry as it was last fall. I mean, it’s just unbelievably dry,” he says. “The ditches don’t have any moisture in them; the lakes are down 2 to 3 feet. That’s a big part of our storage area. ... There’s gotta be some storage area out there.”

1:25 p.m.

As he approaches the Wild Rice River bridge near the Walcott exit, Walaker says, “There shouldn’t be much here in the Wild Rice. There’s nothing flowing.”

Driving over the bridge, he leans over and peers out Mahoney’s window.

“Not a thing,” he says, confirming his suspicions.

2:12 p.m.

Around the North Dakota-South Dakota border, snow is piled a few feet high in places along I-29, and the snow in the ditches dips more gently here.

“I’m still not concerned,” Walaker says, but he adds that what he sees verifies the weather service’s statement about snowpack in the southern valley being far above normal.

It’s here that he makes his crest prediction of 32 feet. The weather service’s latest flood outlook, released last Thursday, gave the Red River a 50 percent chance of topping 33.8 feet in Fargo-Moorhead.

2:26 p.m.

The Explorer rolls into the small town of Rosholt, S.D., where snow piles 6 to 8 feet tall obscure some businesses.

“Lot of snow down here, bud,” Mahoney says.

Walaker pulls into the Crossroads C-store and orders a cheeseburger with onion, pickles and ketchup. Mahoney gets the works.

2:52 p.m.

Back in the SUV, Walaker heads east from Rosholt. His phone rings. He hands it to Mahoney.

“Mayor Walaker’s answering service,” Mahoney quips. It’s Walaker’s dentist. He’ll have to call back.

The ditches here are plump full.

“This is a fair amount of snow, no?” Mahoney asks.

“Yeah,” Walaker says, adding, “but I can’t imagine this is much different from our area” in terms of dry soil conditions.

3:04 p.m.

At the White Rock Dam Recreation Area, Walaker and Mahoney exit the Explorer to get a closer look at flows from the dam.

They know the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has started releasing water here, and from Lake Traverse upstream, to make room for water storage during peak flooding.

“That’s a pretty good flow, so they must be wide open,” Walaker says of the dam’s gates, noting the water will soon pass through Fargo-Moorhead.

Pointing at the ice-crusted river downstream, he recalls how last year at this time it was wide open.

3:23 p.m.

After passing through Wheaton, Minn., Walaker steers toward Lake Traverse, headwaters of the Bois de Sioux River, which joins the Otter Tail River in Wahpeton to form the Red River.

Along Highway 27, the frozen Mustinka River sits deeps in its banks.

“See, there’s nothing started here. Nothing,” Walaker says, and he and Mahoney agree it could be a late spring melt.

He stops the Explorer on the bridge over the Reservation Dam spillway that’s releasing water from Lake Traverse. Again, he notes the lack of open water on the lake, saying there should be twice as much.

Still, it’s not enough to change his prediction.

“I just hope I’m right …” he says as he turns the Explorer toward home.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528