As drought persists, sluggish Red acts more like a pond than river in spots

Late this week, the Red was flowing through Fargo-Moorhead at around 100 cubic feet per second, a rate that was roughly a seventh of its normal flow for early August.

By comparison, the pipeline that is being built to divert water from the Missouri River to the Red during times of severe drought will be capable of carrying 165 cubic feet per second.

In fact, the worsening drought is prompting Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney to ask legislative leaders if they could provide funding — including possible federal infrastructure dollars — to speed up construction of the $1.2 billion project, now expected to take a decade to complete.

“If drought continues you may want to accelerate that and do it faster,” he said.

If the $1 trillion federal infrastructure package passes, the pipeline project is shovel-ready.

“We have it ready to go,” Mahoney said. “It’s been planned. It’s been engineered.”

The receding Red River has exposed debris along the riverbank — including animal bones.

The discovery of animal bones along the riverbank is not unusual when the river level drops, said Christine Holland, executive director of River Keepers.

If the level continues to drop, a major clean-up campaign could be organized to pick up debris, as was done during the 1988-89 drought, Mahoney said.

The sluggish flows have allowed algae to grow in slow-moving stretches of the river. Recently, algae made the Red turn green as it flowed past the camping area of Lindenwood Park and red algae accumulated near M.B. Johnson Park in north Moorhead.

The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality will collect samples of river water for analysis, said Karl Rockeman, the state’s director of water quality.

“The river is slowing down and it’s starting to behave more like a fixed water body,” such as a pond, Rockeman said. “Seeing some growth would not be unusual. It’s a product of the low flows, the low precipitation. We will collect some water samples and see if we can identify what’s growing there.”

The lack of runoff flowing into the river accounts for the “ponding” effect in sluggish portions of the Red, said Amanda Lee, a National Weather Service hydrologist.

“There’s no water going in, so nothing can get washed away,” she said. “It’s just stagnant water. It’s just kind of yuck.”

Algae has been detected by a monitor at the Fargo Water Treatment Plant, but does not pose a problem, said Troy Hall, Fargo’s water utility superintendent. Ozone breaks down the algae, which also is trapped by filters, he said.

Although the river level has gradually dropped throughout the summer, flows on important upstream tributaries appear to be adequate, making it unlikely that Fargo will have to impose further water restrictions, Hall said. Lawn watering now is restricted to every other day.


“In my mind I think we’re in reasonable shape to get through August,” he said.

Water consumption typically drops significantly after Labor Day.

Fargo now is drawing water from both the Red and Sheyenne rivers to supply drinking water.

Peak water demand — on weekday mornings, when people are showering and bathing — has dropped in recent days, suggesting people are beginning to conserve water, Hall said. The city’s drought management plan, now in the advisory phase, has a goal of reducing water demand by 5 to 10%.

“I think we’re pretty close,” at least judging by peak water use, Hall said. Since the late 1980s, when Fargo-Moorhead experienced its last prolonged drought, water use has dropped by more than 40%, from 150 gallons per day per person to 80 or 90, he said.

“That probably helps us a little bit, too,” Hall said.

The Red River has been flowing at a level of about 13.6 feet, the lowest since a drought in 2012, said Adnan Akyüz, North Dakota’s state climatologist. The river has been lower only 14% of the time on record, and is comparable to droughts in 2003, 1990, 1989, 1987 and 1980, he said.

“Those were big drought years,” Akyüz said.

Although low, the Red is still deep enough for paddling canoes and kayaks, especially the reach between the south side and midtown dams, which are higher than reaches below the north side dam, Holland said.

As of Thursday, Fargo-Moorhead entered the severe drought category, which now encompasses 98% of North Dakota, with more than half the state in extreme drought and 10% in exceptional drought, the worst category.

Current drought conditions are comparable to those of prolonged “megadroughts,” but there’s no way to predict if this drought will last that long, Akyüz said.

The project to pipe Missouri River water east, the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, is designed to handle a drought of the severity and length of the drought that lingered throughout the bone-dry 1930s.

The Red River in Fargo stopped flowing for 823 days beginning on July 25, 1932, the longest stretch on record, or about 25% of the days for a period of more than nine years, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which maintains monitoring gages on the river.

Fargo’s population then was 32,580 and now hovers around 125,000, or almost four times larger — a big reason, Mahoney said, that the water pipeline project should be accelerated.

John Wheeler, chief WDAY StormTracker meteorologist, said there is no sign the drought will ease soon, as drought conditions have spread and worsened and aren’t expected to improve in the near future.

Looking further out, Akyüz said it’s likely dry conditions will persist through the rest of summer and fall. A chance for a weather reset could come in the winter, he said, if a strong La Nina pattern develops, which frequently brings colder and wetter conditions to the region.

Last year’s La Nina was very weak, and the chance of two consecutive weak La Nina winters is low, he said. Spring could bring another chance for a change.

“The climate resets itself,” Akyüz said. “In the spring it’s a brand new game. It really depends on winter.”

Droughts often end with a dramatic swing to wetter conditions, he said. Following the drought of 1958 to 1961, North Dakota experienced its third-wettest growing season in 1962. The 1987-1992 drought ended with the second-wettest growing season in 1993, when the Red River Valley’s climate shifted to a wetter phase.

And when was North Dakota’s wettest growing season? That came in 1941, busting the 1930s megadrought.

“It takes only one good growing season,” Akyüz said. As for the current drought, “I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

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