FARGO, N.D. (AP) — The annual Red River Valley pastime of moisture monitoring came to a bone-chilling halt Tuesday when temperatures failed to creep above the freezing mark in eastern North Dakota and put both the gradual snowmelt and nervous flood watchers on hold.
The last few weeks have seen above freezing temperatures during the day and below freezing at night, which are usually conducive to a gradual thaw — but now it's a tad too chilly for comfort, said weather service meteorologist Greg Gust.
"We aren't doing a good job of getting rid of the snowpack or the water by conventional means," Gust said, referring to a slow ground thaw and evaporation. "So at some point it does need to get a bit warmer and stay a bit warmer to really do this right."
But there was some good news on the saturation scorecard: The stubborn cold air over the state pushed a heavy spring storm to the south, where people in the drought-stricken Central Plains were welcoming precipitation that could include a foot of snow in some areas.
"The storm is missing us and that's good news," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. "Prior to this morning, we did see frost being pulled out of the ground, so the ground is accepting more moisture. The only problem is that we may not have a crest until the end of April, which means more chance for precipitation."
Walaker, the longtime director of the Fargo public works department who headed the flood fighting efforts for years before becoming mayor, has become a central figure because his predictions often contradict National Weather Service forecasts. And in 2009, his administration overruled a request by Federal Emergency Management Agency to order a mandatory evacuation near the peak of the flood. His crest guess came within 16-hundredths of a foot.
The mayor predicted a month ago that the Red River would crest at 32 feet in the Fargo and Moorhead, Minn., metropolitan area this year. The weather service gives the river a 50 percent chance of reaching 38 feet — which would be its fifth highest mark in the area. The record flood of 2009 came in just below 41 feet.
Either way, Fargo is bracing for its fourth major flood in five years. Volunteers are working to fill a million sandbags, in addition to the 750,000 bags already in reserve. The state Emergency Commission last week approved funding for the National Guard, Civil Air Patrol and Department of Emergency Services to begin flood preparations.
Walaker bases his predictions on driving excursions to the southern basin of the north-flowing Red River, where he observes snow in fields and ditches, and releases at dams near the headwaters. He made one trip in early March and he plans another tour at the end of this week.
Page 2 of 2 - "The culverts haven't really opened up yet. There's some ponding in some of the ditches but the water isn't getting to the Red yet," Walaker said. "However, the fields in Cass County and even down (south) to Abercrombie are starting to show some good signs. That snowpack was 22 to 24 inches; I would say it's under a foot now."
Paul Todhunter, a University of North Dakota geography professor who has researched snowmelt flooding, said eastern North Dakota is more susceptible to flooding because the area is in the middle of a wet cycle, even with a dry break last year. He said it will take a "nice long dry spell for several years" to keep Fargo from its yearly flood routine.
"It's not a good environment for nervous people," Todhunter said. "The problem with snowmelt flooding in this part of the country is that it's dependent on so many factors, almost anything can happen."
Asked if he had any advice for residents, the professor said: "Buy flood insurance."
Walaker said the city has taken many flood protection steps over the years, including home buyouts and levee construction. He said the city can protect all structures at 38 feet, but still warned against complacency,
"To say that 38 feet is an exercise, I don't believe that," he said. "Things can still go wrong."