Red River subsides as drought continues, but that’s not cause for panic

The Red’s volume as it winds lazily through Fargo-Moorhead is around 220 cubic feet per second, well below the 1,320 average for early July. The level of red is about 14 feet.

Most of the Red River Valley – and all of North Dakota – experiences drought of varying severity, and conditions are reflected in dwindling rivers and streams.

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North Dakota is experiencing its worst drought since 2000, said Adnan Akyüz, the state’s climatologist. Parts of central and western North Dakota, which make up nearly 18% of the state, experience exceptional drought, the most severe category.

Low water level reveals dry roots Wednesday, June 30, 2021, on the Red River in southern Fargo.  Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Low water level reveals dry roots Wednesday, June 30, 2021, on the Red River in southern Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

The intensity of the drought is similar to the severe droughts of the 1980s and 1930s, but the duration of the current drought so far is much shorter than those dry spells, he said.

“There are similarities, unfortunately,” he said. “We know for sure the intensity is there.”

But, in terms of duration, “We’re not there,” he added, noting that the drought started last year, compared to the droughts of the 1980s and 1930s.

The Red River at Fargo stopped flowing for 823 days from July 25, 1932, the longest stretch on record that the river has stopped flowing, according to the US Geological Survey, which maintains monitoring gauges on the river.

The Rouge was shut down for two brief periods in the 1970s. In 1972, from September 30, the river stopped flowing for two days and in 1976, from October 10, no flow occurred for 10 days, according to the geological survey. On December 2, 1910, the red was a fillet with a depth of 5.3 feet, according to the National Weather Service.

The Red River in 1910, showing the railway bridge connecting Fargo and Moorhead, taken under NP Avenue.  The Red River fell to 5.3 feet on December 2, 1910. NDSU Archives

The Red River in 1910, showing the railway bridge connecting Fargo and Moorhead, taken under NP Avenue. The Red River fell to 5.3 feet on December 2, 1910. NDSU Archives

Due to vulnerability caused by prolonged droughts, the Lake Agassiz Water Authority and the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District are constructing the $ 1.2 billion Red River Valley Water Supply Project. The project will transport water from the Missouri River through a 165-mile pipeline to the Red River Valley via the Sheyenne River.

Fargo draws its water from the Red River and, in times of drought, the Sheyenne River, which flows through West Fargo and joins the Red River near Harwood.

Fargo, which also supplies West Fargo and part of the Cass County rural water supply system, has yet to place mandatory restrictions on watering lawns, but has asked residents to water some day on of them.

During the current drought, Fargo drew water from the Sheyenne in June, but recently switched to drawing all of its water from the Red, said Troy Hall, director of water utilities for the town of Fargo.

“It’s not very unusual,” he said of the Sheyenne’s water use.

Fargo has secured the rights to more than 50% of Lake Ashtabula, an emergency water supply provided by a reservoir on the Sheyenne north of Valley City, to help provide water during prolonged droughts.

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To access the water from the reservoir, the city would have to ask the US Army Corps of Engineers to release the water from the Baldhill Dam, which funding from the City of Fargo helped build.

“We are not really at this stage yet,” he said.

In fact, Fargo has rarely reached this point. Fargo exploited Lake Ashtabula during the dry years of 1976, 1984 and 1988, according to city records. Lake Ashtabula could provide Fargo with a backup water supply for about a year, Hall said.

Two outlets on Devils Lake can bring water to the Sheyenne, but only the west outlet would currently flow, Hall said. Still, the Sheyenne at Kindred is sinking at about 150 cubic feet per second. “It flows decently well,” he said.

Meanwhile, as the drought continues, the US Army Corps of Engineers is closely monitoring lower levels in reservoirs in the Red River system.

Lake levels at Lake Traverse, behind Reservation Dam, near Wheaton, Minn., Are within operating limits, but are the lowest they have been for this time of year since 1990. Near Mud Lake, behind White Rock Dam, is 0.6 feet below its summer target level of 972 feet. The discharges from the two dams were halted in early June because there was no water entering the reservoirs.

The pool elevation at Orwell Dam near Fergus Falls, Minnesota is within the target summer range. Water entering the reservoir is released – but at the lowest rate for this time of year since 1988.

Lake Ashtabula remains within the target summer range and continues to release water.

During a drought in 2012, flows on the Red fell below 50 cubic feet per second, about a fifth of the current volume at Fargo, he said.

“For the short term, we’re sitting pretty well,” Hall said. “It’s worrying, but by no means a time of panic.”

Fargo’s water supply is actually more dependent on humidity in Minnesota Lakeland than locally, he said.

Amanda Lee, a hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said the drought started before winter and scant snowfall resulted in spring runoff 70 to 75% of normal in April and early May.

“Then you really have to dive”, at the end of May, diving again in June. There has been virtually no runoff from the spring melt and the summer is starting to be hot and dry, continuing the trend, Lee said.

“This year there was nothing to lift us up,” traditionally low river levels in winter, she said. “We’re going to need more than an inch or so every month to get ourselves out.”

The duration of the drought conditions will dictate how severe the drought, now considered moderate around Fargo, will become, Akyüz and Lee said.

The near-term outlook is bleak, Lee said. “The forecast for now remains dry and warm,” she said.

A multi-year drought like the one that hit California and the southwest – and hit the region in the 1980s and especially the 1930s – would be the worst case scenario.

“It could be a really big injury,” Lee said. “But things can turn out in a hurry.”

A man uses a plank to cross the Red River between downtown Fargo and Moorhead in this 1936 photo. Clay County Historical Society

A man uses a plank to cross the Red River between downtown Fargo and Moorhead in this 1936 photo. Clay County Historical Society

A study of the needs of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project concluded that a sixth year of drought would result in a water shortage of 16%. That would escalate into a 47% shortage by February of the seventh year, when weather conditions would not allow replenishing rivers and streams.

A 2004 climatological study for the United States Bureau of Reclamation’s Examination of the Need for the Water Project concluded that there was a “high probability” that an extreme drought similar to that of the 1930s would occur. produce in the Red River Valley before 2050.

The study concluded that a drought of the magnitude of the 1930s “was the most extreme event predicted until 2050” and provided a useful planning reference.

If a 1930s drought were to strike before the completion of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, Fargo could need 1,000 water trucks a day, the Fargo-Moorhead Forum reported in 2012.

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