FARGO — A pair of cloudbursts in the summer of 1975 produced the worst summer flood ever recorded here.
The first thunderstorm dumped more than 4 inches of rain over a wide area that included Fargo-Moorhead in late June that year. Rainy weather lingered for several days, depositing more than 10 inches in some areas.
Streets flooded in low-lying areas. The Red River crested at 33.26 feet on July 4.
But just a year after sandbagging, a drought settled in, requiring Fargo to tap the Sheyenne River because the Red River flows were inadequate to meet the demand for water.
“Things change here very quickly,” said meteorologist Daryl Ritchison, addressing a conference on the status of the planned $1.19 billion Red River Water Supply Project to provide a backup water source during prolonged droughts — a gathering that coincided with a rare fall flood.
“We live in a land of extremes,” added Ritchison, the director of the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network, or NDAWN, which has a network of weather stations around the state.
The climatological record suggests that the city of Fargo has experienced droughts much more often than floods over the past thousand years, he said.
Based on long-term weather patterns, the current wet period, which started in 1993, is probably due to wind down in the 2020s, Ritchison said.
Droughts and floods, in fact, follow each other much more often than people realize.
“There’s an old saying that ‘all droughts end in a flood,’” Ritchison said. Similarly, he added, “A lot of our droughts start with a flood.”
The Red River has reached flood stage in 53 years between 1902 and 2018 — and every year except 2012 and 2016 from 1993 through 2018, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
But Fargo-Moorhead experienced its last multi-year drought soon before the wet period began, the dry spell of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The abrupt shifts between wet and dry extremes have occurred consistently throughout the region’s history. “It’s just where we live,” Ritchison said.
From 1951 to 1980, 38 inches of snow was considered a normal winter total, said John Wheeler, chief meteorologist for WDAY, who also spoke at the water supply conference. Today, however, 50 inches of snow is considered normal, a higher total that reflects the wetter climate in recent decades.
“Average changes over time and it’s nonlinear,” Wheeler said. “We know it will change and get dry again.”
The risks of living in an extreme, midcontinent climate were made clear to the North Dakota Constitutional Convention, meeting in 1889, when famous explorer John Wesley Powell warned that the fledgling state would experience dry periods that would bring crop failures, causing discouraged people to leave.
That reality of climate extremes is playing out dramatically today as governments work to build massive public works projects to deal with both severe droughts and extreme floods in the Red River Valley.
A partnership involving the state of North Dakota, through the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District and local governments, banded together as the Lake Agassiz Water Authority to build the water supply pipeline, scheduled to begin construction next year and finish in 2029.
At the same time, the Metro Flood Diversion Authority is working to build a $2.75 billion flood-protection project, expected to be completed in 2027 with a 36-mile channel to divert floodwater around Fargo-Moorhead.
“We’re in a highly variable climate,” Ritchison said. “That’s never going to change.”