The prediction for slightly cooler than normal temperatures could lead to a delayed overall thaw, which weather service officials said could make things worse.
The National Weather Service has bumped up the expected spring flood levels of the Red River in Fargo, but officials in North Dakota's largest city said Thursday they're prepared.
The new weather service report comes on the heels of an early March snowstorm that dumped up to 18 inches in some parts of the state and increased the flood risk between about 5 to 10 percent from last month's outlook.
Although the end result will depend on spring precipitation and thawing, residents in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., have been tracking the reports closely since battling three straight years of major flooding that began with a record crest in 2009.
"Right now we're pretty comfortable we should be in good position," Tim Mahoney, Fargo's deputy mayor, said. "But we will be a little bit more concerned if these reports keep going up."
Flood stage in Fargo is 18 feet. Only a few bike paths and roads are shut down from that point up to 30 feet, at which time city officials usually begin construction of a clay barrier to protect city hall. No other structures are threatened until the river reaches 37 feet, thanks to recent efforts to improve protection, such as home buyouts and permanent dikes.
The river usually crests in late March or early April. The newest outlook shows a 50 percent chance the river will peak at 33.8 feet and a 5 percent chance it will reach 38.2 feet. The February outlook listed a 50 percent chance of the river going to 33.2 feet and a 5 percent chance of it cresting at 37.8 feet.
Dave Rogness, emergency manager of Cass County, said the slight increase was not unexpected.
"We are still in kind of that cautiously optimistic, wait-and-see mode," Rogness said. "This kind of sets the stage for us. We still can't predict accurately what is going to happen and when yet."
The forecast calls for slightly above-normal precipitation in the coming weeks, which Mahoney said could be problematic. The prediction for slightly cooler than normal temperatures could lead to a delayed overall thaw, which weather service officials said could make things worse. It's best to have a slow steady thaw, where temperatures are above freezing in the daytime and below freezing at night.
Grubb said if the prediction of about 34 feet holds true, most residents won't notice the crest. About 100,000 sandbags would be needed to protect a handful of neighborhoods if the river rises to 37 feet.
"That's not a lot compared to 3 million," said Mahoney, referring to the number of sandbags placed during the 2009 flood. "But we're hoping we don't have to sandbag at all."
The 2009 flood, which had a record crest of nearly 41 feet, forced thousands to evacuate, inundated about 100 homes and caused an estimated $100 million in damage.
City and county officials have already held preliminary meetings with department heads to get a rough outline for flood protection. Mahoney said those meetings would likely ramp up beginning next week. Rogness said the county will get into full flood mode when the water starts flowing.
"We've kind of dusted off our playbook," Rogness said. "We'll see what happens with the melt and precipitation and do what we have to do."
Fargo has about 750,000 sandbags left over from the 2011 flood in storage. Bruce Grubb, the city's enterprise director, said one of the most grueling parts of the three-year flood fight was filling bags around the clock at "Sandbag Central," a huge garage where garbage trucks are normally stored.
"To not have that mass sandbag production staring us in the face is a huge relief," Grubb said.
The next flood outlook will be released March 21. The weather service usually issues weekly outlooks during the spring melt period.
Currently, snow depths range from 6 to 12 inches in the central Red River basin to up to 2 feet in both the far northern and southern areas. The recent storm hammered some areas of northern North Dakota, increasing the risk of major Red River flooding from 50 to 53 percent in Pembina, on the Canadian border.
The outlook for Devils Lake in northeastern North Dakota shows a 50 percent chance of the lake increasing by about 2 feet, which is mostly unchanged from February. The lake has dropped 3 feet from its record level in 2011, and the increase isn't likely to warrant more flood protection.