1997 record spring floods

Upper Minnesota River and Red River of the North in Minnesota

Climatic conditions and the resulting 1997 spring floods

The 1997 spring flooding along the upper reaches of the Minnesota River and Red River of the North broke most existing flood records in Minnesota. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) estimate of public infrastructure damage in Minnesota from the flood was approximately $300 million. Before the water receded, 58 of Minnesota's 87 counties were declared federal disaster areas. The American Red Cross reported that 23,263 families were affected by the massive floods. Total flood damages and associated economic impacts were estimated to be as high as $2 billion.

This summary report presents facts about climatic conditions leading up to the flood and the actual magnitude of the flood waters in some of the hardest-hit river communities. It also provides historic comparisons between this flood and those a century ago. A simplified computer analysis shows what it would have taken to reduce the 1997 Red River peak at Grand Forks/East Grand Forks to 89,000 cfs (the 100-year flood designation used for management ordinances).

Some have identified the drainage of wetlands and agricultural and urban uses of land as factors causing the flood to reach record proportions. Wetlands and land use can have significant effects on how much and how soon water runs off into streams and rivers, particularly when climatic conditions are near average or "normal." However, after receiving record or near-record amounts of precipitation over thousands of square miles of land in the river basin, the resulting runoff volume simply overwhelmed the hydrologic system and made wetland drainage and land use practices relatively insignificant when describing causes of the resulting record flooding.

Red River Basin

The International Joint Commission (IJC) was asked by the Canadian and United States governments to examine a full range of management options, including structural measures (e.g., building design and construction, basin storage, ring dikes) and nonstructural measures (e.g., floodplain management, flood forecasting, emergency preparedness and response) and to identify opportunities for enhancement in preparedness and response that could be addressed to improve flood management in the future. The Red River Basin Task Force was established in 1997.

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