BISMARCK — State officials from nearly a dozen agencies have begun planning efforts in anticipation of spring flooding after a record wet fall that has produced high river flows and left soils saturated heading into freeze-up.
“We’re starting flood preparations earlier than normal because these unprecedented wet conditions pose a serious threat to people and property next spring, in addition to the tremendous hardship they’re causing our farmers and ranchers right now,” Gov. Doug Burgum said. “While we can’t predict the weather between now and spring, we’re committed to taking a whole-of-government approach to ensure that our local communities, state agencies and federal partners are best prepared to respond and recover if major flooding occurs.”
The city of Fargo has not yet begun formal planning or preparations for a spring flood from the Red River, but officials are keeping an eye on the weather and will be closely watching spring flood outlooks once they are issued, said Nathan Boerboom, a division engineer for the city.
“We are continuously updating our flood-fighting plans,” he said.
Since the record 2009 flood, when the Red River reached a crest of 40.84 feet on March 28, the city of Fargo has built more than 21 miles of levees and floodwalls. Still, the city would need to build about 20 miles of temporary barriers if it had to fight a 2009-magnitude flood again next spring, Boerboom said.
The fall was unusually wet, but it’s too early to make any predictions about the spring flood, he added.
“There’s a lot of winter left,” Boerboom said. “It could go either way. We’re hoping it goes the right way.”
Jason Benson, Cass County engineer, said the county is updating its flood-fighting documents.
“We’ve just done some preliminary discussions,” he said. “We’ve talked about the things we need to do to stay ahead. I think it’s prudent for everybody to be thinking ahead.”
The initial coordination meeting at North Dakota Department of Emergency Services headquarters in Bismarck was designed to lay the foundation for a unified approach to flood preparedness, response and recovery efforts. Other participating agencies included the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Environmental Quality, Highway Patrol, Office of the State Engineer, State Water Commission and the National Weather Service.
“The wetness we've experienced over the past few months is greater than once-in-a-generation,” said Allen Schlag, hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Bismarck.
After drought conditions affected much of the state as recently as June, the three-month period of August, September and October was the wettest on record in 125 years in North Dakota, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information.
High soil moisture is the big concern moving forward, as extremely wet soils will have limited capacity to absorb snowmelt, Schlag said. The winter outlook also calls for a 40% chance of above-normal precipitation over the next three months.
Large volumes of water are frozen in river basins, especially in the James River basin, and will have to flow through the river channels along with snowmelt next spring, Schlag said. One positive is the heavy snow that blanketed much of the state last weekend should insulate the ground and reduce frost depths, allowing soils to thaw more quickly to absorb water in the spring, he noted.
In the coming weeks and months, state agencies will work with local entities and federal partners to solidify flood preparedness, response and recovery plans and share information on how communities and individual property owners can protect themselves, including purchasing flood insurance.
“With two snowstorms already this season, and with a long winter ahead and conditions ripe for runoff, we felt it was prudent to bring everyone together early and start planning how we can best support local and tribal authorities in their flood preparedness efforts,” said National Guard Maj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, the state’s adjutant general.
The National Weather Service will release its spring flood outlooks for North Dakota on Feb. 13, Feb. 27 and March 12. For more information on flood resource and preparedness information, visit www.ndresponse.gov.
Forum reporter Patrick Springer contributed to this article.