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Kevin Bonham, Forum News Service, Published March 31 2013

Web-based flood tools offer wealth of info

GRAND FORKS – Are you wondering whether your home might be threatened by flooding this spring?

If so, are you considering a sandbag dike around your house and garage?

Do you have any idea how much sand that might take, or what it could cost?

You can find that information with just a few clicks on your computer.

The Red River Basin Decision Information Network offers a one-stop shop for flood and weather information at www.RRBDIN.org.

The interactive website, which is managed by the Fargo-based International Water Institute, was launched last year.

One of its chief features is an interactive flood planning map/flood forecast display tool that covers the entire U.S. portion of the Red River Valley.

Using links, or widgets, the website allows you to check elevation, snow depth, snow-water equivalent (the amount of liquid in the snow), weather forecasts and a lot more from the comfort of home.

“Much of the information you see when using the map applications exists on servers across the United States,” said Chuck Fritz, executive director of the International Water Institute. “What we were able to create in the current Next Generation RRBDIN project we would not have been able to as few as 10 years ago. The technologies simply weren’t developed enough. The Web technologies are changing very, very fast.”

The website has been in development for several years, with new features being added as new technology becomes available.

In 2009, cooperating agencies finished mapping all 53,000 square miles of the Red River Basin in the U.S. with LiDAR, which uses lasers the way radars use radio waves. The project cost $5 million.

With the map, you can locate your property on the map and find, for example, the elevation of your house, accurate to within 6 inches.

Another feature – a sandbag calculator – was added late last week. It allows you to draw a line, or perimeter, around your property and calculate how much sand it will take and what it might cost to build a 1-, 2-, or 3-foot sandbag dike.

So far this spring, the National Weather Service has issued “probabilistic” flood outlooks, which provide ranges of flood risk – such as a 50 percent probability of the Red River surpassing 46 feet in the Grand Forks area.

Once the river starts flowing and the weather service begins to issue “deterministic” forecasts – those that provide crest predictions at various points throughout the valley – you’ll be able to plot how flooding might affect your property.

“Instead of a landowner saying I better call a surveyor to check to see if I need to put up some protection, you can calculate it yourself,” Fritz said.

If you live in the Fargo area, you have access to another interactive tool: a flood inundation map, where you can view, block by block, what would be covered by water when the Red River is at, say 30 or 36 feet, and how it would spread out at 36.5, 37, 38 feet and beyond.

The tool was available in 2009. However, new technology incorporated over the past year makes it more sophisticated, yet easier to use, according to Fritz.

The latest weather service outlook indicates the Red has a 50 percent chance of surpassing 38.1 feet in Fargo this spring.

The tool will incorporate the latest weather service data to provide river forecasts and related information up to seven days in advance.

For now, the inundation map is specific to the Fargo area, from just north of Argusville, N.D., south to North Dakota Highway 46.

“We hope that by next spring the Fargo-Moorhead piece will be expanded to include the entire mainstem Red River, all the way to the U.S.-Canada border,” Fritz said.

While the website is operated and managed by the International Water Institute, the project is a cooperative effort of several agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, North Dakota State University Extension Service and the National Weather Service.

The latest version, or Next Generation RRBDIN website, is part of a $405,000 Corps of Engineers watershed feasibility study. Local sponsors are the North Dakota Red River Joint Water Resources District and Minnesota Red River Watershed Management Board.

The website also serves as a portal for an Integrated Warning Team, a coalition of federal, state and local governments and agencies. It provides password-protected access to technical information and tools.

But public access is key, according to Fritz.

“The LiDAR Viewer and the Interactive Flood Planning/FFDT are the most widely used by a broad sector of the public,” he said. “They are not difficult to use and, to be honest, the only way to learn how to use them is to dive in. If you can turn on a computer and point and click with a mouse, you can do it.”

The website remains a work in progress.

“We are developing mobile applications that would allow residents to report snow or flood conditions during flood events,” he said. “They are almost ready for launch, but I don’t think they’ll be ready in time for this spring’s event. The possibilities here are endless and only limited to one’s imagination – and available funding, of course.”