March 15, 2010 / 4:44 PM / 8 years ago

North Dakota braces for major flooding by Tuesday

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - Melting snow will cause major flooding along the Red River in North Dakota by Tuesday with water levels just below the record set in 2009 during one of the worst floods in the state’s history, the National Weather Service said on Monday.

The flood waters will not only endanger homes but could also delay the planting of spring wheat and sugar beets in an important U.S. farming region.

The early melt has hastened flood-fighting preparations in Fargo, which has filled 740,000 sandbags in about two weeks, said the city’s communications manager Karena Carlson. Volunteers will start piling the sandbags into dikes on Tuesday with the help of 300 to 400 National Guard troops.

“Things are happening a little earlier than we anticipated, but with enough volunteers, I think we’ll be able to get things done,” she said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has started building dikes of dirt and clay to protect public infrastructure like roads and water plants in parts of North Dakota and Minnesota, said spokesman Mark Davidson.

A year ago, flooding caused the evacuation of hundreds of homes in North Dakota, including some by helicopter. A lower forecasted crest means that’s not likely this year, said Lieutenant-Colonel Rick Smith of the North Dakota National Guard.

“We are prepared to do that if called upon ... but I don’t foresee that.”

Farmers could not plant crops last year on 464,000 acres in the Red River valley’s 12 counties in North Dakota and Minnesota, according to the USDA’s Risk Management Agency. That included 215,000 unplanted acres that were insured for corn, 97,000 wheat acres and 68,000 soybean acres.

This year’s flood is occurring 10 to 12 days earlier, which could help farmers’ chances of getting crops planted, said Jay Hochhalter, a conservation program specialist with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in North Dakota.

“It definitely is a plus,” he said. “(Fields) are black. They’re going to draw more heat to warm the soils up and dry them out.”

Spring wheat planting normally starts between April 15 and April 20, with seeding of corn and sugar beets later in the month, Hochhalter said.

Spring wheat futures at the Minneapolis Board of Trade shrugged off news of the flood and were pressured by a stronger U.S. dollar and plentiful global supplies of wheat.

The spot May contract finished down 6-1/4 cents at $5.07-1/4 per bushel. Wheat futures rose above $8 during last year’s floods.

SNOWMELT NOT YET BEGUN IN EARNEST

The Red River had risen to 25.21 feet by late afternoon on Monday in Fargo, the state’s biggest city in the Red River Valley, just over the moderate flood stage, said Greg Gust, warning co-ordination meteorologist for the Weather Service.

It should reach the major flood stage of 30 feet by late Tuesday night and crest at 38 feet by the weekend. Temperatures will remain above-freezing until Thursday, Gust said.

“You throw mild temperatures and rain into the snow pack and that combination has sped things up tremendously,” Gust said.

Last year at Fargo, the Red River reached a record 40.84 feet, damaging hundreds of homes in the state and forcing hundreds more to evacuate.

Last week was the earliest on record that the minimum temperature averaged above freezing at Fargo, Gust said. Parts of the state also received 1.5 inches (38 mm) of rain last week.

The river flows north into the Canadian province of Manitoba, which has also had an earlier-than-normal melt.

In the U.S. Midwest, where rain and snowmelt have combined with saturated soils to heighten concerns about planting delays, flooding is already happening on several Iowa rivers, including the Des Moines River and Cedar River, said Pat Slattery, public affairs specialist for the Weather Service in Kansas City, Kansas. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers are also flooding, Slattery said.

“We’re getting the early flooding now and really the snowmelt hasn’t started in real earnest,” he said.

More rains forecast across much of the Midwest this week threaten to delay corn and soybean plantings, said forecaster Mike Palmerino of Telvent-DTN Weather on Monday.

Reporting by Rod Nickel; Editing by Lisa Shumaker/Marguerita Choy

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