As the U.S. Midwest braces for record flooding, cities and towns along the Red River in Minnesota, North Dakota and Manitoba are preparing for a deluge of their own as the heavy snows of winter start to melt.

Fargo, N.D., has declared an emergency and ordered one million sandbags, calling on residents to volunteer to fill the sacks that will be used to make temporary walls to hold back the river. In Canada, the Manitoba government has been predicting the Red River would flood for weeks. Wheat prices jumped amid threats to grain shipments.

“The recipe is there for flooding,” said Corey Loveland, a U.S. hydrologist at the North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, Minn. “If you just take into account the amount of snow basically everywhere, the potential is to have widespread flooding.”

The Red River forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota and flows north into Manitoba, passing through downtown Winnipeg. Its banks are flanked by farm fields. North Dakota is the second-largest American wheat grower, trailing Kansas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The river in Fargo reached a record 3.3 metres above major flood stage in March 2009 and saw heavy flooding again in 2010.

This week, flooding has already snarled rail traffic in much of the Great Plains, slowing or halting shipments of grain. Buyers of spring wheat were paying lofty premiums for supplies in the cash market, which pushed up futures, said Adam Knosalla, a broker at Frontier Futures in Minneapolis.

“You have a lack of farmer sales, at the same time logistics are a mess,” Knosalla said by telephone. “It’s not expected to get any better in the immediate future.”

The May spring wheat contract capped a fifth straight gain on the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, its longest rally in six months.

The effect on wheat planting will depend on when the flood occurs, said Andy Karst, a meteorologist at World Weather in Overland Park, Kan. An early flood would cause the destruction of a lot of property, but would give fields a chance to dry out, he said. But if the spring starts cold and melt is delayed, then rising waters could crowd farmer’s planting schedules.

The Red River may not crest until mid-April, said Jim Peterson, marketing director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. Potential flooding and cool weather could prevent soils from drying enough for farmers to plant seeds.

“The early stuff is not going to be possible,” Joel Ransom, professor and extension agronomist at North Dakota State University, said of spring plantings in the state.

“When you are talking about peak snow melt in the middle of April – that would be a time we’d like to see people close to planting, rather than having water on their fields,” Ransom said. “There’s no doubt there will be delays in plantings.”

Still, even with the delays, if there isn’t widespread damage to levees and roads, planting can recover quickly, said Brad Rippey, a U.S. Department of Agriculture meteorologist. Two-thirds of corn and soybeans were planted in a three-week period in May 2018 after a cold spring slowed early work.

“Things can change in a very big hurry,” Rippey said by telephone. “We did get up and go quickly in May.”

The variety is holding gains this year, bucking losses for winter wheat.

At least 91 per cent of the upper Midwest and Great Plains is snow-covered to an average depth of 27.1 centimetres, according to the U.S. National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center in Chanhassen, Minn. The centre tracks snow countrywide and sends out airplanes to measure its depth.

Loveland, of the river forecast centre, said the flooding severity will depend on how fast that snow melts and how saturated or frozen the soils under it are. The worst thing that could happen is for temperatures to warm as heavy showers come in. Little rain is in the forecast for the next seven days, he said.

Elsewhere, high water on the Missouri River has caused record flooding across Nebraska and the Mississippi River has been spilling its banks for weeks. The same fear of a rapid snowmelt along with heavy rain applies there.

Forecasters are casting a leery eye on computer models suggesting more rain could sweep the Midwest at the end of March, Rippey said.

“If we get a couple of monster storms, that would be another big setback and it could lead to problems,” Rippey said. “The late March storm is something to watch as the computer models try to resolve it.”

Source: AgriMarketing