WAHPETON, N.D. — The Red River of the North is predicted to crest in Fargo-Moorhead at 35 feet sometime Monday, meaning it will have to rise 10 more feet between now and then to match the National Weather Service's forecast. If you do what I did Wednesday morning, you might have a tough time believing it.
If you drive south of Moorhead on Highway 75 to Breckenridge, Minn., you will see little snow and almost no standing water in the farm fields. Once you get south of Kent, Minn., the fields are mostly black with exposed dirt.
The Red in Wahpeton, where the river originates as the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers meet, is high, but not five-alarm-fire high. The diversion channel around Breckenridge has water in it, but not a startling amount.
Driving north on the North Dakota side, there is little to see until one gets into Cass County. The Wild Rice River, the winding ribbon of water late Fargo mayor Dennis Walaker used to predict flooding in the metro area, is only slightly high as it runs under Highway 46 just west of I-29.
Ditto the Sheyenne River that flows under Highway 46 at Kindred.
Where the water catches your eye is between Kindred and Horace. There are areas of large temporary lakes, plus plenty of unmelted snow, that will come off the landscape in the coming days.
But this is nothing like 1997 and 2009, when there was water everywhere on the land, waiting to get to the Red and pass through Fargo-Moorhead. It's just not there.
Even with naked-eye evidence to the contrary, the weather service says a top-10 crest of all-time is headed our way. We must believe them, because to do otherwise would be foolish. For those barking about the city of Fargo playing up a flood in order to make the controversial diversion more palatable, what would you have Mayor Tim Mahoney do? Ignore the snow, ignore the water, ignore the hydrologists and ignore history? That would be negligent.
Besides, observations are only that. When I posted on Twitter three weeks ago that the Red wasn't going to crest anywhere near the record 41 feet Fargo was preparing to defend against, instead saying it was going to hit 35-37 feet, it wasn't based on anything other than my eyes and knowledge of past history. It was not scientific. As the water comes off the land, predicting a specific crest is easier for the weather service.
Greg Gust of the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D., and a longtime predictor of flooding on the Red and other rivers, says water coming north up the Red, plus water loosening from the Wild Rice as temperatures warm this weekend, will cause the rivers to rise.
Plus, Gust said, the Red is still frozen north of Fargo-Moorhead and that will be an issue.
"Ice is the dilemma," he said.
Ice acts as a dam on rivers, inhibiting the free flow of water and forcing it to pool behind the ice. That is what's causing the Maple River near Mapleton, N.D., to back up near I-94 and flood the Maple River Golf Club and surrounding fields.
It's not so much the volume of water entering the river, which will be significant over the next several days, it's that the water is getting dammed by ice.
"We need some good, warming temperatures to melt that ice and then things should flow freely," Gust said.
Until then, we will watch the rise. The Red was on a slow and steady climb Wednesday, April 3, going from 22.7 feet in Fargo at midnight to 24.79 at 4:15 p.m. The forecast predicts it will hit 27.8 feet at 1 p.m. Thursday, 31.2 feet by 1 p.m. Friday and 32.4 feet at 1 p.m. Saturday. The crest of 35 feet is supposed to come at 7 p.m. on Monday, April 8.
If the Red surpasses 34.93 feet, it will rank as the 10th highest crest in recorded history. A 33-foot river would be top 15. It's nothing to sneeze at, even if it's a breeze for Fargo-Moorhead to deal with. The good news is once the Cass County water flows through the metro, there isn't much coming behind it from the south. Even these amateur eyes can see that.