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GRAND FORKS, North Dakota (Reuters) - Flood fighters patrolled strained levees on a Red River tributary and an old dam on a northwest North Dakota river on Thursday as forecasters reduced the projected crests in Grand Forks and in the Canadian province of Manitoba.
The Red River is rising to near record highs as snow melts on saturated ground, swamping fields that produce large portions of the U.S. spring wheat and sugarbeet crops and Canada's wheat and canola production.
Farmers on both sides of the border are falling behind because of fields that are too wet to plant, and flooding has hampered rail service.
BNSF Railway Co, the largest freight carrier in the U.S. Red River Valley, said on Thursday that half a dozen branch and secondary lines in North Dakota were out of service.
Canadian Pacific, Canada's second-largest railway, rerouted trains after flooding damaged track along its main line east of Brandon, Manitoba, the Manitoba government said.
About 100 North Dakota National Guard members watched the levees around Valley City, reinforcing weak spots in the levee system along the Sheyenne River that is expected to crest within inches of its 20.7-foot record there on Friday.
"There was one part of a levee that we had issues with last year too that started to slip," Shannon Bauer, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman, said. "We put in a contingency dike behind it."
Bauer said flood fighters also built a clay dike along Main Street in Valley City to reinforce a temporary barrier made of sand-filled barriers leaking under the strain of the water.
Engineers have added twice to levees in the Valley City area in anticipation of the near-record crest. High flows on the Red River have also left the Sheyenne spreading out across communities near where it meets the Red River north of Fargo.
In northwest North Dakota, the weather service has a flash flood watch in effect until Saturday for Burlington residents near a small dam that could fail on the flooded Des Lacs River. However, river levels were easing on Thursday.
In Grand Forks, the National Weather Service trimmed a foot from its projections, but was still expecting the Red River to reach its third-highest crest on record.
"The Red River is starting to flatten out now, we are still looking at a crest close to, maybe just under, 50 feet within the next 12 to 24 hours," Al Voelker, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, said.
With permanent barriers built after the 1997 floods now protecting Grand Forks and neighboring East Grand Forks, Minnesota, the focus is more on smaller nearby communities.
Once past Grand Forks, the Red River flattens and grows to eight miles wide or more during floods, making numerous roads impassable, isolating some farms in North Dakota and Minnesota and making the small city of Oslo an island for days.
The river ultimately flows through Manitoba into Lake Winnipeg. Canadian towns have been preparing for weeks.
The Manitoba government on Thursday lowered its crest forecast, but said it still expects the second-highest river levels in 150 years.
The Red is projected to crest at the provincial capital of Winnipeg as early as late April.
Manitoba has evacuated nearly 700 people from their homes across the province due to flooding.
Writing by David Bailey; Additional reporting by Doug Barrett and Rod Nickel; Editing by Greg McCune and Dale Hudson