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Published April 02 2013

Forum editorial: Many ‘ifs’ in flood outlook

After last week’s meetings with city and county flood experts, Forum editors and reporters learned that while Fargo and Moorhead are up to holding back a major flood, Cass and Clay counties will be dealing with overland and river flooding that, at certain elevations, can’t be stopped.

Forum staff sought comprehensive assessments from city and county engineers and others so that the newspaper can deploy reporting resources to locations most vulnerable to flooding. Officials used maps to highlight areas at greatest risk when the Red and other rivers rise to moderate or major flood stages. Those are places where sandbags and other hold-back-the-water techniques likely will be needed. There are fewer bad spots than in the past, but even those few are weak links in the area’s flood-fighting chain.

In county rural districts, fewer properties are at risk thanks to buyouts, ring dikes and other protections. But overland flooding will occur at 38 feet (on the Red River) and above. Areas that have been perennially prone to flooding (Highway 75 north of Moorhead, Cass County 17 north of West Fargo, rural roads south of Fargo where the Sheyenne River spills out, for example) will get wet. While a few subdivisions are protected by dikes, others will need fast action to protect them if water rises beyond what has been forecast thus far. Additionally, Cass County has contingency plans to throw up earthen and sandbag levees in specific locations as the river passes 35 feet.

In Clay County, Oakport Township is 98 percent protected to about 42 feet. Georgetown is not fully protected by a ring dike. Rural areas will be affected by overland flooding when the Buffalo River tops 20 feet. Officials warn that many township roads go under at that level, and when the Red tops 38 feet.

So it’s not a perfect flood protection picture in Cass and Clay counties. It never will be, given the nature of rural lands that are subject to regular flooding. But much has been done since 1997 (and the record 2009 flood on the Red) to bring more urban and rural properties into flood-protected zones. Indeed, it’s not that long ago that a 38-foot crest on the Red River would be viewed as a potential flood disaster.

A lot depends on the weather between now and river crests. Melting of the deep snowpack has been slow, but (as noted by WDAY meteorologist Daryl Ritchison in Monday’s Weather Talk) all that winter moisture is still on the land. When it does melt, rivers will rise. And if heavy spring rains come at the wrong time … well, it’s anyone’s guess how big the flood will be.

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.