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The river begins about 15 miles (24 km) north of McClusky, North Dakota, and flows generally eastward before turning south near McVille. The southerly flow of the river continues through Griggs and Barnes counties before it turns in a northeastward direction near Lisbon. The river forms Lake Ashtabula behind the Baldhill Dam north of Valley City.
From Lisbon, the river crosses the Sheyenne National Grassland and enters Cass County near the city of Kindred. From Kindred, the river flows north-northeastward through the fertile plains of the Red River Valley.
The character of the river changes as it leaves the sandy grasslands and picks up the fertile clay soil of the Red River Valley. Previously, the river posed a flooding hazard to cities such as West Fargo and Harwood, where it joins the Red River of the North and flows north to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Thanks to a diversion canal completed near Horace, the major Sheyenne River cities fared well in the 1997 Red River Flood which devastated the cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota.
It is crossed by several historic bridges, including the Lisbon Bridge and the Colton's Crossing Bridge in Lisbon, the West Park Bridge in Valley City, the West Antelope Bridge in Flora, the Romness Bridge near Cooperstown, the Westgaard Bridge near Voltaire, and the Nesheim Bridge at McVille.
On March 20, 2009, communities along the Sheyenne River south of Harvey, were told to prepare for flooding. National Weather Service (NWS) officials estimated a great deal of moisture in snowpack in the Harvey and Maddock areas. That water potential, combined with heavy rains received by eastern North Dakota in late October 2008, posed a combination of moisture events that threatened to drive the river to record levels.
On Sunday, March 22, and Monday, March 23, NWS officials estimated over 50 mm (two inches) of rain fell on the region. The result led to a ramp-up of flood preparation efforts and sudden flooding on the Sheyenne River. The community of Valley City saw a crest of 4.83 meters (15.8 ft) (NWS estimate) on the afternoon of March 24. The crest was just above flood stage, and compared with a 5.64-meter (18.5 ft) crest (US Army Corps of Engineers records) reached by previous floods, notably in 1993, also due to heavy rains.
Communities further downstream were not as fortunate. Lisbon and Kindred received record flooding, and struggled with finding equipment to protect the two cities, due to resources being transferred to Fargo, to fight flooding on the Red River of the North. US Army Corps of Engineers officials stated that Lisbon was forced to hire contractors from Willmar, Minnesota, some five hours away, due to the lack of availability of local equipment. The Sheyenne reached its first crest in Lisbon at just over 5.5 meters (18 ft) (NWS reading) during the evening hours of Wednesday, March 25. Kindred expected a crest on the Sheyenne at 6.83 meters (22.4 ft) at around 7:00 p.m. Saturday, March 28, a new record.
These crests were due to rain runoff. The threatening snowpack that spawned the original warnings has not yet played a role in the flooding (US Army Corps of Engineers). NWS officials told Valley City officials to prepare for a 6.65-meter (21.8 ft) crest of the Sheyenne when the snowpack runs off. That level would exceed the previous record by 55 centimeters (1.80 ft). On April 7, NWS forecasts were revised, projecting a crest of 6.8 meters (22 ft) in Valley City on or near April 14. This would break the record crest by over 1 meter (3 ft 3 in).
Corps of Engineer officials announced that outflows at Baldhill Dam would be elevated from 127 m3/s (4,500 cu ft/s) to 200 m3/s (7,100 cu ft/s) on Sunday, April 12. Later that day, however, Corps officials revised their approach, stating they would hold outflows as much as possible, noting that snowpack north of the reservoir appeared to contain less water than previously thought. However, the outflow was still expected to significantly increase river levels already at major flood stage. As of April 9, NWS readings showed the river at 5.3 meters (17 ft), above the major flood stage of 5.2 meters (17 ft). The projected crest, however, was lowered to 6.7 meters (22 ft).
Outflows reached 171 m3/s (6,000 cu ft/s) on April 12. The river level reached 6.13 meters (20.1 ft) the same day, breaking the record set in 1882. During that weekend, Valley City had two breaches of levees. The first was in an area of town known as Swanke Addition in the northeast. The breach was caught and a ring dike was used to correct the problem. Residents were evacuated from the area, but allowed to return a day later. The second was in the southwest part of Valley City, near Valley City State University's athletic complex on the north side of the river. This breach was also caught early, and another ring dike was used to seal off the breach. Residents were evacuated from an area from 6th Avenue SW to 13th Avenue SW, but they were also allowed to return a day later.
Valley City State University and Valley City High School canceled classes for the entire two weeks of April 13–24. According to the North Dakota Army National Guard Information Service, over 200 troops were dispatched to the city to deal with the flooding situation. Equipment and material were transferred from Fargo, some 60 miles (97 km) to the east, where they were used to fight off flooding on the Red River a few weeks earlier.
On April 14, Mayor Mary Lee Nielson ordered a voluntary evacuation for children, the elderly, the physically and mentally challenged, and all residents that lived within the 500-year flood plain of the Sheyenne in Valley City. City officials stated the evacuation would affect 1,431 homes in the city that were located in the flood plain. Estimates of the total number of people involved topped 3,200, nearly half of the total population of the city. People were to evacuate by 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 15.
On April 15, a general evacuation order was issued for the entire city of Kathryn. The order was the result of water washing over a dam located at Clausen Springs, which had eroded 40% of the dam. While the watershed in question is not a part of the Sheyenne system, Kathryn is a town on the Sheyenne River.
On April 16, a portion of Lisbon was evacuated due to a large crack in the city's levee system. The city was able to repair the fissure, and the evacuated residents were allowed to return late in the afternoon.
On April 17, Valley City suffered a massive failure in its sanitary sewer system. The failure occurred when a plug was not properly placed on the sewer main. Mayor Nielson ordered all non-essential businesses to close, and asked any citizen who could to leave, expecting the system would not be repaired for at least four weeks. Superintendent of Schools Dean Koppelman moved to close the school district for the next week, as the schools had already been closed for the week. Koppelman said the approximately 1,000 students in the district would most likely have to move to other districts for the remainder of the school year.
Finally, during the weekend of April 18, Valley City began to see relief. Sheyenne River levels started to fall, and fell below 5.7 meters (19 ft), the level of the old levees, on April 21. Corps of Engineers officials said they no longer expected the massive inflows into Lake Ashtabula that were previously expected, as river levels upstream had begun to drop. Mayor Nielson stated that the focus began to move toward reconstruction, but further enforced the mandatory closure of non-essential businesses with law enforcement closing businesses unwilling to do so themselves.
Lisbon began to see relief during the same time frame, but not as quickly. River levels fell below 6.7 meters (22 ft) during the weekend, but were not expected to fall below 6 meters (20 ft) for the next week. Further downstream interests, including Kindred and West Fargo, were still expecting the flood waters to enter their communities.
- U.S. Geological Survey. National Hydrography Dataset high-resolution flowline data. The National Map, accessed June 8, 2011
- Reports from KOVC Radio, Spring, 2009
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