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Published December 23, 2010, 02:56 PM

Officials Say Another Flood Fight Looming in Southern Red River Valley

Residents in North Dakota's largest city should be braced for a third straight year of major flooding, National Weather Service officials said Thursday.

By: Dave Kolpack, Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Residents in North Dakota's largest city should be braced for a third straight year of major flooding, National Weather Service officials said Thursday.

The weather service said early factors for flooding — including soil moisture and snowpack — are looking similar to last year on the Red River at Fargo, when residents placed more than 1 million sandbags to protect property. That came off the heels of a record flood in 2009 that damaged hundreds of homes and forced thousands to evacuate.

The outlook also showed what weather service meteorologist Greg Gust called "sobering" numbers for the Devils Lake basin in northeastern North Dakota, where some areas have received 1 foot above normal annual precipitation. The lake, which has nearly quadrupled in size since the early 1990s because of a series of wet years, could rise 2 feet above last year's record, Gust said.

"People around here are getting very nervous about what's going on," said Joe Belford, a Devils Lake resident and Ramsey County commissioner.

The weather service numbers are "somewhat alarming," said Greg Wilz, North Dakota's emergency management director. He said the state plans to meet with federal officials in January to discuss flood preparations.

""The bottom line is, if we end up with a 2009 where we get above average temperatures for a week with high winds, that snow will liquefy quickly and we could be in trouble," Wilz said. "Our posture is this: We're going to plan for the worst and expect the best."

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, who has guided the city through back-to-back successful flood fights, said the flood outlook "is all conjecture" at this point.

"It's a very early report. I think it's a little too early," Walaker said. "I take this with a little bit of a jaundiced eye right now. We'll see what happens, but we will be prepared."

Flood stage for the Red River in Fargo is 18 feet. The weather service report shows there's a 58 percent chance the Red River in Fargo will reach major flood stage of 30 feet. The river crested at just under 37 feet last year.

Precipitation in the Fargo area is 10 inches above normal for the calendar year and the southern basin is likely to exceed normal snowfall, Gust said. He said the Red River is flowing at record levels through the city.

Spring snow, rain and temperatures will ultimately decide the severity of flooding, Gust said.

"Frankly at this point it's too early to peg that with accuracy," said Gust, who added that the climate outlook calls for slightly above normal precipitation in the Red River Valley.

Walaker, who has been known to make flood fighting decisions based on his own boots-on-the-ground research rather than weather service figures, said he was happy to see that flows from the Wild Rice River are below those of a year ago. Walaker calls the Wild Rice, which empties into the Red near Fargo, the "wild card" for predicting flooding in Fargo.

"That's good news," he said.

The weather service expects more of the same for Devils Lake, which has risen close to 30 feet in the last 20 years and threatens to swallow up the town of Minnewaukan. The weather service said there's a 50 percent chance the lake will rise another 2 feet, which would result in waves lapping up against the Minnewaukan school, Belford said.

"That's a very critical elevation for us," Belford said, referring to the possible 2-foot rise. "We would be in a big hurt."

Devils Lake is at the bottom of a closed basin that has no natural river or stream outlet.

The heaviest snowfalls this year have been across the Devils Lake basin and portions of the southern Red River Valley, with lesser amounts in central and northern areas, Gust said.

"Typical white Christmas expectations have been more than met or exceeded," he said.

Walaker said he wishes the report would have been released after the white Christmas.

"Just what everybody needs right now is a little more stress in their lives," he said.