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Published January 17, 2011, 10:47 PM

Southern Valley Leaders Begin Flood Preparations

A snowier than usual winter and a grim flood outlook expected today from the National Weather Service have spring flood preparations ramping up early this year.

By: Heidi Shaffer, The Forum

FARGO — A snowier than usual winter and a grim flood outlook expected today from the National Weather Service have spring flood preparations ramping up early this year.

Both Fargo and Cass County are ready to issue emergency declarations after today’s flood forecast, a move usually made much later in the spring.

“People have to understand we’re going to do what’s necessary to protect them,” said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

Walaker said he doesn’t know what the updated outlook contains, but early predictions point toward the possibility of a major flood.

Local leaders met Monday with Sen. John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg to hear about what Fargo, West Fargo and the rest of Cass County are doing to brace for what spring may bring for flooding along the Red River and its tributaries.

Sen. Kent Conrad had a representative attending the meeting.

“The predictions we’ve had over the years have been so right on, but I think you’ve also applied common sense,” Berg said. “It’s a balance between doing everything we can, not wanting people to be worried, but also wanting to be realistic about what needs to be done.”

The weather service’s December outlook called for a 50 percent chance the Red River in Fargo will reach 31.5 feet and a 10 percent chance it will hit 38.2 feet.

Major flood stage in Fargo is 30 feet. The 2009 record crest reached 40.84 feet and the 2010 flood topped out at 36.99 feet.

Since the first flood forecast was released on Dec. 23, an additional 19.3 inches of snow fell in Fargo, said WDAY meteorologist Rob Kupec.

Hoeven said this is the third year in a row the area has experienced a wet winter.

“Clearly we’re in a wet cycle,” he said. “We just wanted to make sure there’s a really well-coordinated effort all the way through.”

The city and county will work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to possibly speed up some of the temporary protection projects that didn’t get finished before winter hit.

Tim Bertschi, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district operations manager, said the corps is also beginning its plans to staff the basin for a spring flood.

After 2009’s record flood, Fargo engineers have worked to build new and upgrade existing levees in hard-to-protect areas, said City Engineer Mark Bittner.

Those projects would mean about three fewer miles of earth levees and 670,000 fewer sandbags.

“If we had the same event that we had in 2009, we’d be quite a bit better prepared, but there is still a lot of work that would need to be done,” Bittner said.

Right now, Fargo is largely protected to 38 feet, Walaker said. “Every foot above 38 feet costs a significant amount of more money to protect the city,” he said.

Cass County has bought out 80 homes and constructed a number of levees in problem areas to try to ease emergency efforts, said Keith Berndt, county engineer.

West Fargo is also preparing its flood strategy, said Mayor Rich Mattern. A large part of that will be to begin watching for ice jams along the Sheyenne Diversion, he said.

West Fargo also will closely monitor what happens throughout the Sheyenne basin, including in Devils Lake.

The weather service’s December forecast predicted a 50 percent chance the lake will rise to 1,454.6 feet and a 1 percent chance it will rise within a foot of its natural spillover into Tolna Coulee.

Oxbow Mayor Jim Nyhof said the projects his city has undertaken will protect them to 2009 levels. Anything above that would be a fight, he said.

Fargo plans to begin holding neighborhood meetings in February to ensure residents know what they need to do to protect property.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will also hold an informational flood insurance meeting at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 in the Fargo Public Library.

In the meantime, local leaders will continue their efforts to prepare for the unknown.

“There’s people who are scared, and you have to try to provide them with some confidence,” Walaker said. “That’s basically what we’re going to try and let them know that we’re doing everything that is possible … even though it’s not a defined event yet.”