FARGO - The Red and Sheyenne rivers are still providing plenty of water to the cities that need them in a hot, dry summer.
But in a region that's been prone to severe droughts in decades past, the contingency plans are on the books, just in case.
In spite of an unabated string of scorching days and the absence of major rainfall, Fargo isn't flirting with a water shortage, said Bruce Grubb, the city's enterprise manager.
"We're not at the point where I can definitively say that we're close," he said.
To meet its peak demand this summer - about 20 million gallons of water per day - Fargo needs the Red and Sheyenne to move about 21 cubic feet of water per second. The Red is currently flowing at about 640 cubic feet per second, and the Sheyenne at about 310.
Moorhead, which gets about 85 percent of its water from the Red and the rest from aquifers, is also doing fine, said Kris Knutson, water division manager for Moorhead Public Service.
"This one dry year, after many, many wet years, is not a concern for us," Knutson said.
Grubb said the current conditions in Fargo and Moorhead can be misleading because the parts of Minnesota that feed the Red, while still relatively dry, have seen more rain.
He also said the city expected demand to climb much higher than it has this summer - a sign that citizens have been judicious in their use.
"We've been quite shocked, to be quite honest with you, that as hot as it's been and as dry as it's been, that we've seen a peak of 20 million gallons per day here," he said. The plant's capacity is 30 million gallons per day.
Should the rivers slow to what the city considers to be the danger zone - 100 cubic feet per second for the Red or 50 for the Sheyenne - officials will mull the backup plan: a release of water reserves from Baldhill Dam at Lake Ashtabula.
The city, which helped fund the dam when it was built, has the rights to about two years' worth of water there.
Once the city's request for a reserve release was approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the dam, the water would take about three weeks to get here via the Sheyenne.
In Grubb's 23 years on the job, he's never had to take that step, and has never seen the rivers that low for reasons other than manmade obstruction.
In the event of a shortage, Moorhead would lean on its aquifers, which would raise pumping costs. But it would take a string of dry years in a row for that to happen, Knutson said.
"One dry year, even five dry years, we'd probably be OK," he said.
West Fargo relies entirely on aquifers, which take decades to respond to surface conditions as rainwater trickles underground.
Barry Johnson, the city's public works director, said demand has been manageable this summer, though it has crept up in recent weeks as the weather has baked the region.
As insurance against a prolonged drought, Fargo, Moorhead and a handful of other cities have long been trying to advance a plan to divert Missouri River water eastward.
The proposal, the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, would use nearly 200 miles of canal and pipeline to bring water from the Missouri across the state. It has been abandoned and restarted in various incarnations since the 1960s and is currently stalled by the federal budget crisis and bureaucratic inertia.
Without that backstop, a multi-year drought that exhausted Fargo's reserves could lead the city to haul in truckloads of water to meet basic needs. For a drought on par with those of the "Dirty '30s," the Depression-era years in which the Red stopped running altogether at times, the city could need more than 1,000 truckloads of water a day.
"I hope I never live to see that," Grubb said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502
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