Red River Flooding
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                          The Water Chronicles - Main Site November 24, 2014

                            Red River Flood 1897 Red River Flood 1950 Red River Flood 1979 Red River Flood 1997
1826 - the first flood on record
Eyewitness account
At Fort Garry, the Red River rose 2.7 metres (8.85.Feet) in 24 hours; this quick rise in water level may have been due to an ice jam. The estimated maximum discharge of the river through the town was 6371 cubic metres per second.

Floodwaters forced the abandonment of Fort Garry and virtually destroyed every building in the town. Much of the destruction was caused by floating ice that split trees and demolished houses. Eight settlers in Fort Garry and several Indians along the Assiniboine River were reported to have drowned. Boats from the Hudson's Bay Company rescued many people stranded on rooftops. An eyewitness account describes the destruction:

    While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing and every description of property might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain, to be engulfed in Lake Winnipeg.

    Hunger and famine followed the flood. The long, hard winter had depleted food stores, the floodwaters had swept away livestock and seed, and the soil was too wet to plant until well past the usual planting time. As a consequence, the townsite was abandoned for several years and moved to Lower Fort Garry.
Earliest Floods - Environment Canada

The Red River
From Lake Traverse to Wahpeton, ND, the Red is known as the Bois de Sioux. At Wahpeton, the Bois de Sioux converges with the Ottertail River, and becomes the Red River proper. The Red's total length measures over 880 km, but this figure is exaggerated by the serpentine nature of the river's path. The total distance (as the crow flies) from source to mouth is only 456 km. The watershed for the Red River covers about 127,000 km2, and over 290,000 km2 when including all of its tributaries. The Red has a very low gradient (< .00001 in places), resulting in a rather slow-moving current and its meandering riverbed.

Red River - NRCan
Several large communities sit astride the river's banks: Wahpeton, North Dakota; Fargo, North Dakota; Moorhead, Minnesota; Grand Forks, North Dakota; East Grand Forks, Minnesota; Winnipeg, Manitoba and Selkirk, Manitoba.

The Red is fed by several large tributaries, including the Assiniboine River, the Sheyenne River and the Pembina River. The Assiniboine is a major east-west waterway, reaching to southwest Saskatchewan. The Red and the Assiniboine meet at The Forks in Winnipeg; an area that has been a traditional meeting place for the area's inhabitants for millennia, and is now a National Historic Site and popular tourist attraction. The Sheyenne flows eastward though central North Dakota, joining the Red just north of Fargo-Moorhead. The Pembina River skirts the Manitoba/North Dakota border, meeting the Red at Pembina, North Dakota. Canadian Encyclopedia

Falling no more than 70 metres during its entire 870 kilometre length, the Red River is in no big hurry to send its waters north. As it prepares to empty into the southern tip of Lake Winnipeg, it gets downright sluggish, ending in a vast deltaic wetland known as Netley Marsh. Part of a low-lying area that characterizes the southern basins of both Lake Winnipeg and Lake Manitoba, Netley Marsh covers 24,000 hectares north of the cities of Winnipeg and Selkirk. It is a key spawning, feeding and nursery area for Red River and Lake Winnipeg fish species, as well as the site of the Netley Marsh Game Bird Refuge. Great Canadian Rivers

The Red is a relatively young river, only having flowed for approximately 8,000 years. As the waters of ancient Lake Agassiz receeded (following the failure of glacial ice dams and the sudden outflow of water into the St. Lawrence basin), the Red River Valley provided a natural channel for drainage into the shrinking Agassiz basin. Eventually Lake Agassiz disappeared, leaving several smaller lakes in its place, and the nascent Red began flowing into the largest of these newer lakes, Lake Winnipeg. The new river was soon exploited by various Plains Indians tribes who migrated into the area. The Red soon became a link in an informal trade network that linked the northern plains with First Nations residing along the Mississippi River. With the arrival of Europeans in the area, the Red and its tributaries were used by trappers, coureurs de bois and voyageurs in the ever-expaning fur trade. Until the railroads arrived in the late 19th Century, the most reliable forms of summertime transport were rivercraft: canoes, York boats and barges.

BECAUSE OF ITS MUDDY BOTTOM, its lazy flow, and its suddenly changing moods, Manitoba's Red River has earned its old nickname, the 'Mississippi of the North'.

The Red River and the mighty Mississippi River are siblings, starting near each other as trickles in the midwest of the United States. They are slow, murky and lazy - usually. But both rivers can flash into a rage that devastates the towns and cities that are in the way of their periodic spring floods. Other times they can almost dry up.

Before railways and highways were built, steam-powered, paddle-wheeled riverboats plied both the Red and the Mississippi Rivers. Today, both rivers are prized by fishers for the huge catfish that lurk in their dark, turbid depths.

At the end of the last ice age, the Red River flowed south, just like the Mississippi. But, when the glaciers receded, the Red River changed direction, flowing north into the depression created by the tremendous weight of the departed glaciers.Canadian Council for Geographical Education

The Legacy of Lake Aggasiz
Imagine it's 11,000 years ago, and imagine that you are high above midwestern North America. All you see below you is a lake a giant lake, born of a massive, continental glacier.

Bigger than Lake Superior, larger than any freshwater body on the earth today, ancient Lake Aggasiz extended from northern Saskatchewan in the west to northeastern Ontario in the east, and from southern Minnesota in the south to northern Manitoba in the north.

Rising and Falling: Glacial Lake Aggasiz (named for Louis Aggasiz, 19th century Swiss naturalist and glaciation theorist) began to form about 12,000 years ago, as the Laurentide Ice Sheet retreated northward. Over the next 5,000 years, it changed its boundaries several times, as glacial ice advanced and retreated. At the peak of its coverage, the lake drained to the south through the Minnesota River Valley, west through northern Saskatchewan to Alaska, and east to the Great Lakes. About 8,500 years ago, the southern part of the lake drained for the last time, and about 1,000 years later, it was gone from northern Canada.

Today, the Red River Valley exists in what was the southwestern portion of Lake Aggasiz, extending just over 500 kilometres from Lake Traverse in the south to Lake Winnipeg in the north.Great Canadian Rivers

Major Floods
Geological History
The geological history of the Red River Valley is like the Biblical story: It began with a great flood. The flood swelled to a great inland sea of freshwater 12,000 years ago, a sea fed by the gush of icewater form the melt of the last glacier.

The weight of the retreating glacier tipped the land toward the north, so as it melted, the runoff would not drain away toward the Gulf of Mexico. Instead it pressed back toward the glacier, but the ice blocked the flow.

Water could go nowhere but back onto the land, to form vast glacial Lake Agassiz. The lake--really a natural reservoir formed by the dam of glacial ice--reached out 50 miles wide in the upper valley around Fargo, the largest freshwater lake on the North American continent.

From that glacial lake, which finally drained north as the ice retreated, came the flat basin of the Red River Valley. All that remains is the poky Red River and its tributaries.

But when the Red Floods, it keeps the spirit and tradition of its ancient predecessor, for valley inundations can be blamed in part to the same block that build Lake Agassiz--ice. Because the river flows north, climate is it springtime adversary. Ice and snow melt first on the southern reaches of the river. The bulge of runoff pushes toward Canada, but up north the Red is not yet ready for a springtime thaw. Down river is still a block of ice, and like the glacier, it dams the runoff from the south. The Red is forced into temporary retreat, across the bottom of old Lake Agassiz.


Sorlie Bridge -1997

Grand Forks Herald -1997
Unfortunately, we're living on the lake bottom. The bottom is flat as a floor, so the water oozes into nearly everywhere. No flash floods on the red--it's "one of the few rivers in the world that can run amok while practically standing still," observed Vera Kelsey in her 1951 Book, Red River Runs North! North Dakota State University

1826 - the first flood on record

Excerpt from Alexander Ross' book The River Settlement of 1856.
The winter had been unusually severe, having begun earlier and continued later than usual. The snows averaged three feet deep, and in the woods, from four to five feet. On the 2nd of May, the day before the ice started, the water rose nine feet perpendicular in the twenty-four hours!

Such a rise had never before been noticed in Red River. Even the Indians were startled, and as they stared with a bewildering gaze, put their hands to their mouths, exclaiming, "Yea ho! yea ho!" an expression of surprise, "What does this mean? What does this mean?" On the 4th, the water overflowed the banks of the river, and now spread so fast, that almost before the people were aware of the danger, it had reached their dwellings. Terror was depicted on every countenance, and so level was the country, so rapid the rise of the waters, that on the 5th, all the settlers abandoned their houses, and sought refuge on higher ground.

At this crisis, every description of property became of secondary consideration, and was involved in one common wreck, or abandoned in despair. The people had to fly from their homes for the dear life, some of them saving only the clothes they had on their backs. The shrieks of children, the lowing of cattle, and the howling of dogs, added terror to the scene.

While the frightened inhabitants were collected in groups on any dry spot that remained visible above the waste of waters, their houses, barns, carriages, furniture, fencing, and every description of property, might be seen floating along over the wide extended plain, to be engulfed in Lake Winnipeg. Manitoba Historical Society


The 1950 flood in the Red River of the North and the Winnipeg River Basins was the largest that had occurred in several decades and caused the greatest damage that the flooded area had ever sustained up to that point.

Five lives were lost in the United States, owing to causes directly connected with the floods. The dual peaks -- on upper river and tributaries, one in April and the other in May -- of nearly the same size and the large lake-like body of flood-water ponded between Grand Forks and Winnipeg were notable features of the flood in the Red River of the North Basin. The flood in the Winnipeg River Basin was characterized by the unusually large volume of runoff and the lateness of cresting on the Lake of the Woods.

The spring floods of 1950 in the Red River of the North and Winnipeg River Basins were caused by many factors so combined that nearly record-breaking flood flows resulted. The important factors causing the flooding were: (1) high soil moisture at breakup combined with frozen ground, (2) above-normal accumulation of snow at breakup, (3) later-than-normal breakup, and (4) heavy precipitation during the breakup. Ice jams were an additional cause of flooding on a few of the tributaries. USGS

Another major flood occurred during April, May and June of 1950. The river's peak discharge of 3058 cubic metres per second was less than half the peak discharge of the 1826 flood. A heavy snowcover caused the Red River to reach flood levels by April 22. In early May, a heavy rainfall, twice the normal for the month, occurred. In Winnipeg, the river was above flood stage for 51 days.

At the peak of the flood, the water was 4.6 metres deep in some of the low-lying districts. All that could be seen were rooftops of houses. Water covered one tenth of the city, and an estimated 60 000 people fled their homes. Military cargo planes delivered millions of sandbags, which were piled by thousands of volunteers. Some 3000 soldiers were called in to operate the dykes and pumps. During the flooding two dykes were breached and one volunteer pump operator drowned. Through considerable effort the dykes were able to keep 4700 houses dry.

In rural areas, many towns were inundated and buildings swept away. "I remember seeing a small cottage floating down the river," one resident recalled. "It struck a bridge pillar and the furniture popped out at the one end as it opened like a cardboard cereal box." Environment Canada

One of the most noteworthy floods in North Dakota occurred during April 1979. The Red River of the North, which forms the boundary between North Dakota and Minnesota, inundated more than 1 million acres of valuable farmland and caused damage of about $114 million.

The principal factors that probably contributed to the flood were (1) intense precipitation during late winter, especially in upstream parts of the basin, and continuation of this precipitation into late April and early May; and (2) lower than normal temperatures during the winter of 1978-79, with a subsequent delay of spring snowmelt until mid-April, followed by a sudden increase in temperature that caused rapid melting. USGS

The Red River Flood of 1997 was a major flood that occurred in April and May 1997, along the Red River of the North in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Southern Manitoba. It was the most severe flood of the river since 1826. The flood reached throughout the Red River Valley, affecting the cities of Fargo and Winnipeg, but none so greatly as in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks, where floodwaters reached over 3 miles (5 km) inland, inundating virtually everything in the twin communities. Total damages for the Red River region were US$3.5 billion.

The flood was the result of abundant snowfall and extreme temperatures. Although hundreds of people prepared for the flood with sandbag dikes, based on a 49-foot estimate of flooding set by the National Weather Service, the river crested at 54 feet in Grand Forks. Grand Forks mayor Pat Owens had to order the evacuation of over 50,000 people as a large portion of the city would eventually be flooded. A large fire started in Grand Forks, engulfing eleven buildings and sixty apartment units before being extinguished. Flooding in Manitoba resulted in over $500 million in damages, although the Red River Floodway, an artificial waterway affectionately known as "Duff's Ditch" saved Winnipeg from flooding. USGS

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Learn more...

Red River Floodway Expansion Project- Manitoba Floodway Authority

Paleoenvironmental History fo the Red River Valley since AD 1463 - Manitoba Government

Getting Ready for the Next Red River Flood, 1998- International Joint Commission

North Dakota State University


Geoscientific insights into the Red River and its flood problem in Manitoba

Geoscientific Insights Into Red River Flood Hazards In Manitoba - Final Report 2003 - NRCan

RADARSAT-1 Captures the Red River Flood -NRCan

Fargo, North Dakota Its history and images

Manitoba Historical Society

Native Americans and the Fur Traders - Info Please

The 1997 Flood in Grand Forks North Dakota -

The Great Flood of 1997 - Minnesota Public Radio

Red River Valley History -

Red River Flood - 1826 - Manitoba Historical Society

The Manitoba Floods - Musee du Fjord

Flood Controls Work - Prairie Water news

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