Grand Forks’ drought plan calls for tougher conservation efforts

It's not ironclad, but at least two of the four ways Grand Forks' drought management plan measures a drought indicate that the city should be enacting tougher restrictions on water use than it currently is, even after moving to "Phase 2" of the five-phase plan. The region's scores on the Palmer Drought Severity Index and Standardized Precipitation Index are both at levels that would nudge Grand Forks toward "Phase 3" of its plan or beyond, in which the city would stop asking residents and businesses to conserve water and begin mandating it.

Water from the Red Lake River flows across the Point Dam near the confluence of the Red And Red Lake Rivers July 21, 2021. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Despite a brief downpour on Monday, the Grand Forks area is still in the midst of a drought.

That’s why city administrators on Wednesday suggested that residents water their lawns on a staggered schedule : people who live in odd-numbered houses should only water their lawns between 4 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, and people in even-numbered homes should only do the same on Tuesdays and Fridays. That recommendation, which city staff stressed is not a mandate, supersedes an earlier recommendation that residents only water their lawns twice per week, regardless of the day.

Those recommendations are spelled out in Grand Forks’ “drought management plan,” a 27-page guide designed to help city leaders decide when and how to reduce the demand for water during a drought. The voluntary restrictions put forth on Wednesday are part of “Phase 2” of the five-phase plan.

But, even with the incrementally broader conservation effort, the plan itself seemingly calls for more severe measures than what the city has enacted so far. It offers four metrics to help city staff determine which phase of a drought they’re in -- river flow, reservoir levels, and two different estimates of soil moisture -- and at least two of those metrics indicate that Grand Forks should already be beyond Phase 2 and into more severe phases in which the city government would institute mandatory water restrictions on itself, residents and most businesses.

So why hasn’t that happened?


‘Plenty of streamflow’

City Administrator Todd Feland said the city is trying to keep pace, so to speak, with some of its neighbors along the Red Lake and Red rivers such as East Grand Forks, where officials, at the Minnesota DNR’s request, asked residents there to only use water when necessary .

Beyond that, the city is still getting enough water from the Red Lake River, Feland said, which is where Grand Forks draws most of its municipal water supply. Intakes for the city’s water treatment plant sit near a dam in the river near the Point Bridge, about 500 feet before the river is subsumed by the Red.

“Right now, we do have streamflow going by,” Feland told the Herald. “Plenty of streamflow to continue to treat.”

And that flow -- or lack thereof -- over the dam is a key metric for Fred Goetz, who runs Grand Forks’ water treatment plant. If water is still pouring over that dam, Goetz said, then the city doesn’t need to draw from reservoirs near Valley City, Fergus Falls and the Minnesota-South Dakota border.

“If that Red Lake dam is not flowing, that means the water is not getting replenished,” Goetz said. “As long as we’re continuing to flow over the Red Lake dam, we know we have water coming from the Red Lake itself.”

That might change in the next week or so, though, because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is gradually closing the gates at a dam it maintains at the Red Lake River's source on the eastern shore of Lower Red Lake. To keep the lake at a prescribed water level, Corps staff are working toward a “minimum outflow” from that dam, which could mean as little as 31 cubic feet of water flows through it per second. Typically, about 600 cubic feet of water per second goes through that dam, according to Brian Johnson, a civil engineer who works in the Corps’ water management section. Last week, that figure was at about 115 cfs.


But Johnson said the Corps, plus other agencies and “stakeholders,” are set to re-evaluate the dam’s minimum flow rate.

“The 31 cfs was developed, say, decades ago, so there may be a re-evaluation needed to determine an adequate minimum release,” he said Wednesday.

That re-evaluation meeting is scheduled for 8 a.m. Friday, July 23. Representatives from Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, among other governments, are scheduled to attend.

Drought conditions

As of July 14, the vast majority of northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota received a score of -5 or lower on the Palmer Drought Severity Index, according to the federal National Integrated Drought Information System . That score, which uses temperature and precipitation data to estimate relative soil moisture, would put the city in the fifth phase of its drought plan, which is a “drought emergency.”

And as of July 19, the region’s six-month score on the Standardized Precipitation Index, which uses long- and short-term precipitation figures to measure soil moisture, was below -1.5, according to the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center . That would put Grand Forks in the third phase of its drought plan: a “drought watch.”

The other two factors considered by Grand Forks’ drought plan -- river flow and reservoir levels -- are just as quantifiable, but city staff weren’t sure where they fell in the terms used by the drought plan. The Red Lake River was flowing at 230 cubic feet per second on the 19th, and the Red River was flowing at 674 cubic feet per second, according to Goetz. The drought plan considers stream flow relative to “monthly flow duration values,” not simple flow figures -- a flow greater than those monthly values means a harsher drought. Goetz said he wasn’t sure how much those figures exceeded monthly flow levels, if at all.


“We’re really just getting into this,” he said.

Similarly, reservoirs at the Baldhill Dam near Valley City, N.D., the Orwell Dam near Fergus Falls, Minn., and Lake Traverse near the Minnesota-South Dakota border, sat at 1,265 feet, 1,064 feet and 973 feet, respectively, on Monday. Goetz wasn’t sure if those values were insufficient to maintain conservation pool levels for those reservoirs, which is how Grand Forks’ drought plan weighs them.

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

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