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First flood report: Devils Lake to see major flooding, cities along northern Red River most at risk

Access to a narrow peninsula of farmland jutting out into Stump Lake, south of Lakota, N.D., is compromised by the rising lake water. File photo by Sarah Kolberg.

GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Landowners near Devils Lake could lose significant acreage to flooding this year, forecasters said Thursday, but Red River flooding likely will not reach 1997 levels.

The National Weather Service said in its first spring flood outlook areas in the northern Red River Valley are at significant risk, especially to the north of Grand Forks near Oslo, Minn., and Pembina, N.D., especially in areas with flatter terrain, weather service meteorologist Greg Gust said.

Freezing rain and sleet have set the stage for high runoff potential, the weather service said.

Most areas in the Red River Valley are at risk for minor to moderate flooding, with major flooding possible in east-central and northeast North Dakota, as well as northwest Minnesota.

Residents near Grand Forks could see significant flooding, but the city is better protected, Gust said. The city could reach moderate to major flooding stages, though the chances of the Red River reaching its record crest—set April 22, 1997, with 54.3 feet—is unlikely, Gust told the Herald Thursday.

"The chances of seeing a '97 flood are not even showing up statistically," he said. "It's less than 5 percent."

Residents near Devils and Stump lakes may not be so lucky. After a wet summer and fall saturated the soil, the lakes could rise 3 to 4 feet.

"The news isn't very good," said Jeff Frith, a Ramsey County commissioner and manager of the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board. "I was thinking 2 to 2 ½ feet, but 3 to 4 (feet) is ... certainly more than what I was expecting."

Saturated soil is widespread across northeast North Dakota, though snowpack is less in Grand Forks—2 inches—than in the Devils Lake Basin and far northwest Minnesota—3½ to 4½ inches. That places the Devils Lake region at 120 percent of normal, Gust said.

Grand Forks has not been hit as hard as Devils Lake and other cities during major snowstorms this winter. A Christmas storm brought 16 inches to the Devils Lake area while Grand Forks saw about 4 inches.

Lake levels for Devils Lake at Creel Bay and Stump Lake near Lakota, N.D., are near 1,450 feet, according to the weather service. The record height for Devils Lake was set June 27, 2011, at 1454.4 feet. It's likely lake levels this year will rise to near or even above that record, Gust said.

"There is a 25 percent chance of breaking that old flood record," he said. "That's a big deal."

In previous years, a foot rise would mean a loss of 8,000 to 10,000 acres around the lakes, Frith said. Runoff also could come into play, and other wetlands that aren't attached to the lake could grow, he said.

The city of Devils Lake shouldn't see major flooding since it is protected by dikes, Frith said, though he said it is unfortunate to see these increased estimates, especially since dry weather, the installation of lake outlets and receding waters have allowed Devils Lake region landowners to reclaim about 35,000 to 40,000 acres.

"You could have a significant amount of land that is going to be affected," he said. "It's the rural areas that are going to be hit the hardest.

"We were really making some progress," he said, adding the area could be "right back to where we started six years ago."

Frith said the numbers are preliminary, adding there are a lot of variables that could affect the final numbers. However, if the numbers hold up, it could have an economic impact not only on the region but the state as well. If farmers can't access land, they cannot plant crops and sell their harvest, meaning the state likely will miss out on large sums of tax revenue.

"We have a lot of winter left to go and a lot of spring," he said. "That's an awful lot of land that we could potentially lose this spring."

The remaining months of winter are likely to be cooler and snowier than average, according to the weather service. The Water Resource Board, County Commission and state water leaders likely will discuss the forecast in the coming weeks, Frith said.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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