Spring snowmelt accelerated in Red River Valley

A winter storm warning remains in effect for northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota until 1 p.m. Friday, April 3.

Quentin Wilkie chips away at his ice-covered windshield in downtown Grand Forks Thursday morning. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Rain and relatively warm temperatures will accelerate spring snowmelt, according to a report issued by the National Weather Service Thursday morning, April 2. A winter storm warning remains in effect for the region until 1 p.m. Friday, April 3.

Overnight rain resulted in 1/3 of an inch or less of precipitation by Thursday morning. Northeast North Dakota and northwest Minnesota are expected to receive 5 to 9 inches of snow accumulation and up to 15/100ths of an inch of ice, according to the NWS, which could result in up to 2 inches of water equivalent on the ground by the weekend.

That precipitation won't immediately affect flood levels in the Red River, NWS meteorologist Jim Kaiser said in a Thursday briefing.

"The good news is this is snowfall, so our rivers are not going to respond rapidly as our temperatures are going to be hovering around that freezing mark over the next seven days for our daytime high," Kaiser said.

Updated projections show the Red River will crest at 46.6 feet on Monday, April 6, just above the cutoff for major flooding levels. The river is expected to remain at crest levels beyond the seven-day forecast. No secondary rise is expected at this time, and, if there is a second crest, it's unlikely it will surpass the level of the first crest, according to Kaiser.


"As we get to Grand Forks, we're going to see a very prolonged higher period of water as the Red crest works in, and then the Red Lake crest works in kind of behind it," Kaiser said. "So we'll see that river has risen fairly efficiently in the last 24 hours, and in another 24 to 48 hours we'll be right at major flood stage at 46 feet, we'll see that prolonged 46-foot, 46.5-foot level for Grand Forks from this weekend through much of next week."

Sorlie Bridge was among many bridges in Grand Forks County that closed Wednesday in preparation for flooding, said county engineer Nick West. County roads that have been closed as of Thursday include County Road 6, County Road 5 and County Road 11. West also believes County Road 18 between Manvel and Oslo will also go underwater in the coming days. Minnesota Highways 220 and 317 near Oslo are also closed.

Thursday afternoon, East Grand Forks declared a snow emergency starting at midnight on Friday, April 3. The North Dakota Department of Transportation and North Dakota Highway Patrol also issued a travel alert for Grand Forks, Drayton, Pembina and Cooperstown Thursday afternoon due to hazardous driving conditions created by the winter storm and the flood.

By early Thursday afternoon, no power outages had been reported in Greater Grand Forks as a result of the storm, but some Grand Forks residents experienced flickering lights as rain froze to power lines and got picked up by wind gusts. Xcel Energy North Dakota Principal Manager Mark Nisbet said he is optimistic warmer temperatures will melt the ice before any severe damage occurs, but that Xcel crews are ready just in case.

"Even during this COVID-19 virus, our light crews are standing by ready to hop into his or her truck to solve it, so a lot of times it could be back on within an hour, hour and a half. Two hours is what we would say in our outage map," Nisbet said. "We understand that people are spending more time than ever at home, so their electric and natural gas are critical services. Our crew guys do a great job of heading out no matter what the weather is."

Warmer temperatures are expected to resume snowmelt beginning Saturday afternoon. Runoff in recent days has contributed to a rapid rise in Minnesota tributaries to the Red River, and Kaiser said water that is already in the system will continue into the Red, but new runoff will be slowed significantly by below-freezing temperatures until Saturday.

As a winter storm system continues to bring freezing rain and sleet to the Grand Forks area, that wintery mix combined with accelerated runoff will create hazardous driving conditions as motorists have the potential to slide off slippery roads into water-filled ditches. The NWS urges extreme caution while traveling.

And going forward, West reminded residents to exercise caution around flood waters, too.


"Don't mean to be too rude, but don't go around the barricades and drive through water," he said. "People do that way too much. Some day we're going to have an unfortunate accident. Please be respectful -- if a road is closed, it's closed for a reason, and just don't drive through flood water, I guess, and please be patient with the water."

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