Red River Basin Flooding

Science Center Objects

Learn about and look at pictures from the Red River Basin floods.

1897

1945

1950

1979

1997

2001

2006

Thompson Bridge

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 1897

The photographs in the multimedia tab are of Red River flooding in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1897.  The U.S. Geological Survey established a gage in 1901.  Therefore, the flood of 1897 is outside the USGS period of record.  However, other records from 1897 indicated that the flood of April 7, 1897, reached a stage of 40.10 feet present datum, discharge, 25,000 ft3/s at a site 1.5 miles downstream from the present Fargo gage.

Because the 1897 flood is often used as a measure of other Red River Valley floods, a description of it at Fargo and Grand Forks was included in a 1952 U.S. Geological Survey Water Supply Paper.  Text from that description is reprinted below.

The winter preceding the great 1897 flood was extremely severe as shown by the following remarks from the Fargo Forum and Daily Republican for March 15, 1897,  under the heading "The Coming Flood":

The present indications are that we will have high water this spring, as high if not higher, than it was in the spring of 1861.  If all reports are true there is more snow on the level now than there was in the spring of 1861.  That year the entire valley was flooded from Big Stone Lake to Winnipeg, a distance of more than 300 miles.  There are but four men living in the valley now that witnessed the great flood of '61 -- the largest body of fresh water in the world at that time * * * R. M. Probesfield is authority for saying that he, a few days ago, measured the snow in his timber, where it was free from drifting and it measured 5 feet.  This measurement is two and one-half feet more snow than we had in 1861.  Those facts prove that we will have a greater flood this year than in the history of the valley.  Old Settler.

The flood forecast by "Old Settler" was not long delayed.  The Red crested at Wahpeton on March 31, 2' 8" above the 1893 high.  By April 1, 1897, the C. M. St. P. & P. Railway tracks between Fargo and Wahpeton were covered with water in spots and traffic was suspended.  By April 2 the Buffalo River overflowed so a large lake was formed between Glyndon and Moorhead.  The Wild Rice (N. Dak.) River was described as 'on a splurge too'.  The Sheyenne River was reported rising slowly at Valley City on April 3.  The Red crested early on the morning of April 7 at Fargo at 34.2 foot stage (present [1952] datum) exceeding the known high levels of 1871, 1873, and 1882.  The Sheyenne River, by April 8, was up so high that water flowed overland from it to the Wild Rice River.  The flood of 1897 at Fargo covered most of the business and residential areas of the city.

The 1897 flood crested at Grand Forks about noon on April 10 bringing the water up to a line along Third Street and covering Demers Ave. in East Grand Forks.  Flooding on all tributaries between Grand Forks and Emerson was reported, and a serious situation developed at Grafton.  The crest reached Emerson [Manitoba] on April 24 and completely flooded the town.  The flood of Winnipeg [Manitoba] did not receive mention as an outstanding event.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 1945

Click the Multimedia tab to see images from this flood.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 1950

The 1950 flood in the Red River of the North and the Winnipeg River Basins was the largest that had occurred in several decades and caused the greatest damage that the flooded area had ever sustained up to that point.  The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Water Resources Division, Department of Resources and Development, Canada, published a Water-Supply Paper in 1952 regarding the flood.  Text from that publication is reprinted below.

Five lives were lost in the United States, owing to causes directly connected with the floods. The dual peaks -- on upper river and tributaries, one in April and the other in May -- of nearly the same size and the large lake-like body of flood-water ponded between Grand Forks and Winnipeg were notable features of the flood in the Red River of the North Basin. The flood in the Winnipeg River Basin was characterized by the unusually large volume of runoff and the lateness of cresting on the Lake of the Woods.

The spring floods of 1950 in the Red River of the North and Winnipeg River Basins were caused by many factors so combined that nearly record-breaking flood flows resulted. The important factors causing the flooding were: (1) high soil moisture at breakup combined with frozen ground, (2) above-normal accumulation of snow at breakup, (3) later-than-normal breakup, and (4) heavy precipitation during the breakup. Ice jams were an additional cause of flooding on a few of the tributaries.

Mid-March snow-surveys, made in the area by hydrographers of the United States and Canadian services, showed that the snow pack north of Fargo, N. Dak., had an unusually high water content and a runoff potential increasing from west to east. A narrow band, extending from near Grand Forks, N. Dak., east-northeastward across the basin, had a water content of 5 inches or higher. April 15 marked the beginning of rapid melting throughout the basins; most of the snow was turned into water by the end of the first melt period on April 24. A return of winter-like conditions until May 10 brought more snow and set the stage for second flood crests.

The records of stage and discharge collected on the Red River of the North at Grand Forks, N. Dak., since 1882 show that the important 1897 flood slightly exceeded the 1950 flood in both stage and discharge. Records collected by the Geological Survey and Corps of Engineers on the Red River of the North show that the 1950 flood stages exceeded any previously known from just below the mouth of the Turtle River to the international boundary. Records for streams tributary to the Red River of the North between Fargo and the Roseau River show, in general, that the 1950 flood events exceed those of any known past floods. In the storage basins of the Winnipeg River, Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake reached a stage comparable to that of 1916; and the Winnipeg River discharge at Slave Falls exceed the highest previously recorded maximum, which occurred in 1927. Records of floods on the Red River at Winnipeg show that the 1950 flood did not reach as high as stage as those of 1826, 1852, and 1861.

Wahpeton/Breckenridge

The first phase of the flood on the Red River of the North in 1950 was the minor flooding at the start of the Red River at Breckenridge-Wahpeton in late March and early April. The River at Wahpeton started rising on March 26; by the afternoon of April 2 it had reached peak discharge. Damage from flooding in the Wahpeton area was nil or minor.

Fargo-Moorhead

At Fargo, the April flood caused some minor inconvenience and damage on lower Broadway. Pumps were in continuous operation to keep the Fargo City Auditorium dry. It was estimated that 100 families, the majority in Moorhead, Mn., had been forced from their homes by the flood as of April 5. The water continued to rise at Fargo until April 7 when it reached a peak stage of 21.2 feet. A flood almost as large occurred on May 12 as a result of the second thaw.

Grand Forks-East Grand Forks

The Red River flood passed from Fargo downstream to Grand Forks without going overbank. At Grand Forks the Red Lake River enters from Minnesota and the flood waters of that stream, added to those of the Red River of the North, created a flood situation at Grand Forks and downstream that was the most serious to occur there since 1897.

Ample flood warning was given to the inhabitants of the area; R. W. Shultz, Weather Bureau meteorologist, issued a forecast for a flood stage of 42 feet at Grand Forks on April 8. At that time, the river stood at about 27 feet at the Weather Bureau gage in Grand Forks. Official flood stage at Grand Forks is 28 feet.

By April 7 some families, anticipating flooding, had moved from their homes in the Lincoln Drive area. As the water's rose, the flood threat became a reality, made ominous by the 6 inches of wet snow that fell over Easter weekend; on the morning of April 10 the river was more than 3 feet above flood stage at Grand Forks and rising. Cold weather of the period April 10-13 slowed the rate of rise but did not stop it. Warm weather, April 15-21, caused a resumption of thawing and the river rose rapidly towards a crest at Grand Forks. On April 14 about 18 families had moved from their homes in the Lincoln Drive area and four families had moved from their home in East Grand Forks. By April 17 about 60 families had been moved from their homes in the twin-city area. The river reached the predicted stage of 42 feet on April 19 and then held to a small daily rise, finally cresting on April 24. The flood recede slowly to a stage of 35.5 feet on May 3 and began rising again for the second and higher crest.

More than 225 families had been forced from their homes in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks by the flood crest on the Red River of the North, as of April 20, according to the Grand Forks Herald. The Riverside Park and Lincoln Drive residential areas of Grand Forks were badly flooded, although the Grand Forks business district was not troubled except for wet basements. Water got into the underground tubes carrying steam heating pipe through Grand Forks and the vapor, which rose from manholes as the water touched the hot pipes, had to be carried in tubes about 10 feet above street levels to permit unobscured view of traffic. The appearance of these makeshift chimneys with vapor pouring from the top was especially weird at night.

The second flood crest came on May 12 and multiplied the damage of the April crest; many families packed up precious belongings and moved from their homes a second time. Supply of electric power and city water was not interrupted at Grand Forks at any time during the flood although inference was with normal operation at both the water treatment plant and the power plant was common. Traffic into the city from the north and south was impossible because of flooded main highways. The water did not recede below flood stage until June 4. Although the 1897 flood reached a higher stage it did not last as many days; in 1950 the river was officially above flood stage at Grand Forks from April 9 to June 3.

Grand Forks to Winnipeg

The Red River of the North below Grand Forks resembled, for nearly two months a series of lakes rather than a river. The descriptions of the floods in the small communities along the river between Grand Forks and Winnipeg were almost alike: the story of evacuation of personnel and prized belongings was repeated again and again in the United States and Canadian towns. All towns located along the Red River between Grand Forks and Emerson were seriously flooded. The population of Pembina, N. Dak., normally 650, was reduced to 144 by migration due to the flood. Below Oslo, Minn., the dual peaks of the flood upstream were merged into one long flat crest that moved on downstream in that form, the flood becoming serious at Pembina and Emerson about the third week of April. The small Canadian communities located between the border and Winnipeg were flooded continuously for weeks.

Winnipeg

Winnipeg, a city of about 300,000 [1952], is the largest urban center in the flooded area. The description of the flood sequence at Winnipeg merits detail. An epic fight to save as much as possible from the flood began on April 21 and ended about June 1. Volunteers and military personnel working on dikes and utilities became a familiar scene.

The flood crest passed from the northern limits of Winnipeg into Lake Winnipeg without going overbank. At the time of the crest only about 2 1/2 square miles of city land was under water owing to the hasty erection of earth and sandbag dikes. It was estimated that 80,000 people of greater Winnipeg left their homes because of flooding or threatened flooding. The main business district of Winnipeg was not flooded, but disruption of utility services hampered activities.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 1979  

The following is a description of the 1979 in a U.S. Geological Survey Water-Supply Paper published in 1991.

One of the most noteworthy floods in North Dakota occurred during April 1979.  The Red River of the North, which forms the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, inundated more than 1 million acres of valuable farmland and caused damage of about $114 million.  

The peak discharge of 82,000 ft3/s on April 23 at Grand Forks had a recurrence interval greater than 50 years; that discharge was exceeded only during the flood of 1897 [the 1979 discharge has since been exceeded by the 1997 flood].  Several peak discharges established new records on major tributaries to the Red River of the North, including the Sheyenne and Good Rivers.  On the Goose River at Hillsboro, the peak discharge on April 21 was 14,800 ft3/s, which has a recurrence interval greater than 100 years.  

The principal factors that probably contributed to the flood were (1) intense precipitation during late winter, especially in upstream parts of the basin, and continuation of this precipitation into late April and early May; and (2) lower than normal temperatures during the winter of 1978-79, with a subsequent delay of spring snowmelt until mid-April, followed by a sudden increase in temperature that caused rapid melting.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 1997

The following is a description of the 1996-97 floods from a U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report published in 2005.

The harsh winter of 1996-97, combined with the 1997 spring floods, caused the worst natural disaster in recent history for North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, and western Minnesota. Above-normal snowfall in central and eastern North Dakota during the winter of 1996-97 and a blizzard on April 5-6, 1997, caused the worst flooding in the Red River of the North and Missouri River Basins in more than 100 years.

The heaviest snowfalls occurred along the main stems of the Red River of the North and the Missouri River and were about 300 percent greater than normal. About 117 inches ofsnow were recorded in Fargo, 96 inches in Grand Forks, and 101 inches in Bismarck (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1996a). Elsewhere in the region, snowfalls were well above seasonal averages. Melting of the snowpack and thawing of ice began in late March on rivers and streams in the southern and western parts of the State. Flows were inhibited by a blizzard that occurred on April 5-6, 1997. The blizzard brought a severe drop in temperatures, winds up to 70 miles per hour, and up to 2 feet of snow with drifts many feet higher in several areas. In southeastern North Dakota, the blizzard was preceded by wind-driven rain and sleet. The wind and ice toppled trees and power lines, leaving thousands of people without power for days. Thousands of people were forced to flee their homes, some permanently, as floodwaters and severe weather caused over $5 billion in damage to the region (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 1997b).

The Red River of the North is one of the few rivers in the United States to flow directly north into Canada. The basin flood plain lies in a glacial lakebed and is relatively flat (less than 0.5-foot drop in elevation per mile in the reach downstream from Grand Forks, North Dakota). Because of the flat basin, the shallow river channel, and the northerly flow, the timing of spring thaw and snowmelt can greatly aggravate flooding in the basin. Snow and ice in the headwaters of the Red River of the North begin to melt first, when areas downstream remain largely frozen. The melt pattern can cause ice jams to form, and substantial backwater can occur as flow moves northward toward a still-frozen river channel.

Two peak stages occurred in Wahpeton, which is located in the southern part of the Red River of the North Basin. On April 6, 1997, the stage of the Red River of the North at Wahpeton (streamgage 05051500, table 35) was 19.42 feet, which is 1.47 feet higher than the record set in 1989. Because of the additional moisture from the April 5-6, 1997, blizzard, a record flow of 12,800 cubic feet per second and corresponding stage of 19.25 feet was recorded 9 days later. On April 17, 1997, the peak stage of the Red River of the North at Fargo (streamgage 05054000, table 35), about 96 river miles north of Wahpeton, was 39.57 feet, and the peak flow was 28,000 cubic feet per second. On April 18, 1997, the peak stage at Fargo was 39.72 feet, which exceeded the record set 100 years earlier, and the peak flow was 27,700 cubic feet per second.

High flows continued to move downstream in the Red River of the North. On April 18, 1997, the peak stage of the Red River of the North at Grand Forks (streamgage 05082500, table 35) was 52.04 feet, which is 1.84 feet higher than the record set in 1897, and the peak flow was 137,000 cubic feet per second. The peak flow was unusual because it resulted from the convergence of flows from the Red Lake River in Minnesota, flows from the main channel, and breakout flows from the Red River of the North that were conveyed by old Red River of the North oxbows. Breakout flows occurred upstream from Grand Forks when plugs in the upstream end of the oxbows either were overtopped or washed away, which caused a flow of about 25,000 cubic feet per second to arrive at the confluence of the Red Lake River and the Red River of the North at Grand Forks. The flow of 25,000 cubic feet per second coincided with the peak flow of the two rivers. To compound problems in Grand Forks, a fire on April 19, 1997, demolished several buildings in the flooded city. The flooding made it extremely difficult for firefighters to reach the fires and put them out. Except for emergency personnel, Grand Forks and its sister city, East Grand Forks, Minnesota, were completely evacuated at this time.

On April 24, 1997, the peak stage at the Red River of the North at Drayton (streamgage 05092000, table 35) was 45.55 feet, which is 1.89 feet higher than the record set in 1979, and the peak flow was 124,000 cubic feet per second. At the Pembina River at Neche (streamgage 05100000, table 35), the peak stage was 24.51 feet, which is 0.87 foot higher than the record set in 1979, and the flow was 12,800 cubic feet per second. Six days later, the peak flow was 15,100 cubic feet per second, and the stage was 24.20 feet. On April 27, 1997, USGS personnel measured 141,000 cubic feet per second in the Red River of the North at Pembina (streamgage 05102490, table 35), which is located about 2 miles upstream from the international boundary with Canada. The previous maximum discharge of this century at the Canadian streamgage, Red River at Emerson, Manitoba (streamgage 05102500), located about 1 mile downstream from the border was 95,500 cubic feet per second on May 13, 1950.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 2001

The following is a description of the 2001 floods from a U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report published in 2001.

During the spring of 2001, major flooding occurred for the second time in four years on the Red River of the North and its many tributaries in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota.  Unlike the 1997 floods, which were the result of record-high snowpacks region-wide and a late spring blizzard, the 2001 floods were the result of above-average soil moistures in some areas of the basin, rapid melting of above-average snowpacks in the upper basin, and heavy rainfall that swept across the region on April 7, 2001.

In the fall of 2000, soil moistures varied across North Dakota and Minnesota.  Soil moistures were above average in southeastern North Dakota but were below average in western Minnesota because of below normal rainfall during the growing season.  Before freeze-up in November 2000, a series of storms saturated the upper portions of the soils preventing further infiltration of moisture and leaving many parts of the Red River Basin with 1 to 2 feet of snow.  Along the Red River, the 2000-2001 snowfall was above average but was less than the record 1997 snowfall.  Temperatures began to warm during the end of March and caused the flooding to start in the upper Red River Basin.  A massive storm system that brought heavy rains and high winds moved through the upper plains on April 6 and 7, 2001.  The upper part of the basin received 1 to 2 inches of rain that added to the flooding problem.  Rainfall continued periodically throughout April in parts of the Red River Basin.

Wahpeton/Breckenridge

On April 9, 2001, the peak stage on the Red River at Wahpeton, N. Dak., was 16.94 feet, which is 2.48 feet less than the record set in 1997, and the peak discharge was 9,220 cubic feet per second.  The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 25 and 50 years.  During the first two weeks of April, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) built additional levees in Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minn., to help minimize the flood damages.

Fargo/Moorhead

On April 14, 2001, the peak stage of the Red River at Fargo, N. Dak., was 36.63 feet, which is 3.09 feet less than the record set in 1997, and the peak discharge was 20,300 cubic feet per second.  The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 25 and 50 years.  In early April, the COE built five earthen levees adjacent to the Red River to protect the city of Fargo from the rising water.

Grand Forks/East Grand Forks

High discharges continued downstream on the Red River.  On April 14, 2001, the peak stage of the Red River at Grand Forks, N. Dak., was 44.87 feet, which is 9.48 feet less than the record set in 1997.  The peak discharge was 55,800 cubic feet per second, which occurred on April 11, 2001.  The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 10 and 25 years.  Because of high discharges upstream and heavy rainfall during the first week of April, Grand Forks city officials asked the COE to help raise the city dikes to 52 feet.

Canada

On April 24, 2001, the peak stage of the Red River at Emerson, Manitoba, just north of the international boundary between the United States and Canada, was 788.79 feet, which is 3.62 feet less than the record set in 1997, and the peak discharge was 55,600 cubic feet per second.  The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 10 and 25 years.

 

Red River of the North Flooding - 2006

The spring of 2006 brought another round of flooding to the Red River of North and its many tributaries in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. Flooding in the Red River of the North Basin was preceded by above-normal precipitation in many areas in the fall of 2005. Snow pack in many parts of the Red River of the North Basin reached 300 percent of normal by early 2006. Flooding began in late March in the upper (southern part) basin and the severity of the flooding increased when the southern part of the basin received 1.25 inches of rain on March 30-31, 2006. Rain, rising temperatures, and rapid snowmelt pushed the flood crest northward. Many of the 2006 peak stages and peak discharges were one of the five highest for the periods of record at streamflow gaging stations on the Red River of the North and its tributaries.

Wahpeton / Breckenridge

On April 1, 2006, the peak stage on the Red River at Wahpeton, N. Dak. (station number 05051500), was 15.93, which is 3.49 feet less than the peak of record, 19.42 feet, set in 1997, and the 2006 peak discharge was 7,180 cubic feet per second. The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 10 and 25 years. [Since 2005, flows from the Otter Tail River (at the headwaters of the Red River of the North) are partially diverted around Breckenridge, Minn. The diverted flows are measured at the USGS streamflow gaging station, Otter Tail River Diversion at Breckenridge, MN (station number 05046475). Flows for the Wahpeton streamflow gaging station are combined with the flows diverted around Breckenridge, Minn., to give a more accurate accounting of the quantity of water going through the river system during periods of high flow. This information is important when comparing historical streamflow data to streamflow data obtain after 2005 at the Wahpeton, N. Dak. gaging station.]

Fargo / Moorhead

On April 5, 2006, the peak stage on the Red River at Fargo, N. Dak. (station number 05054000), was 37.13, which is 2.59 feet less than the peak of record, 39.72 feet, set in 1997, and the 2006 peak discharge was 19,900 cubic feet per second. The 2006 peak discharge was the 4th highest peak on record since 1900. The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 25 and 50 years.

Grand Forks / East Grand Forks

On April 6, 2006, the peak stage on the Red River at Grand Forks, N. Dak. (station number 05082500), was 47.93, which is 6.42 feet less than the peak of record, 54.35 feet, set in 1997, and the 2006 peak discharge was 72,800 cubic feet per second. The 2006 peak discharge was the 5th highest peak on record for this streamflow gaging station since 1882. The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 25 and 50 years. One of the largest contributing tributaries to the Red River of North in the United States is Red Lake River in Minnesota. In any given year, Red Lake River may contribute from 15 to 50 percent or more of the flow to the Red River of the North at Grand Forks, N. Dak. This tributary enters the Red River of North a few hundred feet downstream of the Point Bridge in Grand Forks, N. Dak. - East Grand Forks, Minn. On April 2, 2006, the peak stage at Red Lake River at Crookston, Minn. (station number 05079000) was 25.24 feet which is 3.16 feet less than the peak of record, 28.40 feet, set in 1997, and the 2006 peak discharge was 26,400 cubic feet per second. The recurrence interval for this peak discharge was between 25 and 50 years.

Devils Lake Basin

Devils Lake is a 3,810-square-mile closed subbasin within the Red River Basin in North Dakota. At an elevation of about 1,446.5 feet above sea level (asl), Devils Lake begins to spill into nearby Stump Lake. On May 9, 2006, Devils Lake reached a new peak daily elevation of 1449.20 feet asl (Devils Lake near Devils Lake gaging station 05056500). The previous peak was 1449.18 feet asl which occurred on June 17, 2004. Not only is the rising stage of Devils Lake a subject of concern, but the flooding caused by the rising lake level also is a concern to people living within this closed basin. Since 1993, rising water has inundated homes, businesses, and agricultural lands and has caused some nearby roads to be closed permanently. The rising water has caused damages exceeding $450 million and sparked controversy on mitigating the rising water.

 

Thompson Bridge 

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