The National Weather Service spring flood outlooks this year have cast an encouraging light on flood mitigation projects throughout the Red River Basin.
Yes, it is actually possible that the Red River might not flood this spring.
Three years of annual flooding has left many of us with the mindset that it always floods in spring. It does not.
From 12,000 to 8,000 years ago, the Red River Valley and the Devils Lake Basin were a small part of a huge lake covering eastern North Dakota, northwestern Minnesota, along with vast portions of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. It had a surface area greater than all of today’s Great Lakes combined.
When Lake Agassiz partially drained to the south, it cut the river valleys currently occupied by the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. When it partially drained to the east, the introduction of so much fresh water into the north Atlantic disrupted the flow of the Gulf Stream and caused a thousand-year-long return to near glacial conditions around the world.
Eight thousand years ago is an eternity when compared to a human life. But it is insignificant when compared to 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs became extinct, or 4 1/2 billion years ago, when Earth formed. In geological time, the Red River Valley and Devils Lake are brand-spanking-new.
Those of us who have lost homes to the current high-water phase of the region may find little solace in this knowledge, but the fact remains that the years of one human life are nowhere near enough to make any sensible judgments about what sort of water levels are “normal.”
People talk about water “never being this high before” as if it were a significant observation. But the floods in 2011, 2010, 2009, 1997, etc., are likely quite insignificant when a grander scale is considered.
How high could the water conceivably go? Devils Lake is only a few feet from overflowing into the Sheyenne River, something it has done at least twice in the past 4,000 years. Devils Lake stops rising when it flows into the Sheyenne, but flooding increases significantly downstream in places like Valley City, Lisbon, Fargo, Grand Forks and Winnipeg.
For these downstream locations, not only is there Devils Lake water to contend with, but the size of the river’s watershed will have increased by the size of the Devils Lake Basin.
Precipitation falling on Churchs Ferry could cause a rise on the Red.
This grander scale also has a reverse side. The 1930s turned the Great Plains into the Dust Bowl. Since then, droughts have come occasionally but only a year or two at a time. The geological record ensures us that multiyear droughts will come again. In the distant past, there have even been mega-droughts lasting 50 to 100 years. The great civilizations of the Mayans and the cliff-dwelling people of the American Southwest may have been done in by one of these long-term droughts.
When it comes to water resource management, we have always had a tendency to react to the current problem. Garrison Dam, which created Lake Sakakawea, was built in the 1940s to solve the problem of flooding on the Missouri as well as to provide a solution to the water shortages across North Dakota experienced during the 1930s.
But the promise of bringing Missouri River water to eastern North Dakota has never been fulfilled, in part because of numerous, legitimate environmental concerns. But the absence of any long-term drought since the 1930s has certainly shifted public and political concern away from the problem.
A more environmentally friendly plan to deliver Missouri water to the Red River Valley by means of a pipeline began to gain momentum in the mid 2000s, but the flood of 2009 diverted our attention.
Now, Fargo-Moorhead leaders are hopeful that a massive diversion channel can be built. Legitimate controversy exists over where to divert the water to, but ultimately the project may have more trouble maintaining its momentum should the fickle nature of our climate shift back to drought.
Both drought and flood are hard realities of life here in the Red River and Devils Lake basins. The problem is, they reach extreme proportion only occasionally, giving us time to forget. Realistically, there is probably not much we can do if it stops raining for 40 years, or it rains for 40 days and 40 nights.
We cannot be prepared for everything. But better, reasonable management of our water systems will require that we develop a much wider view of how our weather can change.
John Wheeler, WDAY and WDAZ chief meteorologist.