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Red River of the North

Coordinates: 50°23′47″N 96°48′39″W / 50.39639°N 96.81083°W / 50.39639; -96.81083
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Red River of the North
Rivière Rouge / rivière Rouge du Nord
The Red River in Fargo–Moorhead, as viewed from the Fargo side of the river
Nelson River drainage basin
Red River of the North is located in Manitoba
Red River of the North
River's mouth
Red River of the North is located in Canada
Red River of the North
Red River of the North (Canada)
Physical characteristics
SourceConfluence of Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail Rivers
 • locationWahpeton, North Dakota
 • coordinates46°15′52″N 96°35′55″W / 46.26444°N 96.59861°W / 46.26444; -96.59861
 • elevation948 ft (289 m)
MouthLake Winnipeg
 • coordinates
50°23′47″N 96°48′39″W / 50.39639°N 96.81083°W / 50.39639; -96.81083
 • elevation
712 ft (217 m)
Length550 mi (890 km)
Basin size111,004 sq mi (287,500 km2)[1]
 • locationLockport, Manitoba, 20 miles (32 km) above the mouth
 • average8,617 cu ft/s (244.0 m3/s)
 • minimum491 cu ft/s (13.9 m3/s)
 • maximum152,900 cu ft/s (4,330 m3/s)
Basin features
River systemNelson River
 • left
 • right

The Red River (French: rivière Rouge), also called the Red River of the North (French: rivière Rouge du Nord) to differentiate it from the Red River in the south of the continent, is a river in the north-central United States and central Canada. Originating at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers between the U.S. states of Minnesota and North Dakota, it flows northward through the Red River Valley, forming most of the border of Minnesota and North Dakota and continuing into Manitoba. It empties into Lake Winnipeg, whose waters join the Nelson River and ultimately flow into Hudson Bay.

The Red River is about 885 kilometres (550 mi) long,[2] of which about 635 kilometres (395 mi) are in the United States and about 255 kilometres (158 mi) are in Canada.[3] The river falls 70 metres (230 ft) on its trip to Lake Winnipeg, where it spreads into the vast deltaic wetland known as Netley Marsh. Several urban areas have developed on both sides of the river, including the city of Winnipeg in Canada, as well as the Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks–East Grand Forks metropolitan areas, both of which straddle the North Dakota–Minnesota border. Long an important highway for trade, the Red River has been designated a Canadian Heritage River.



The watershed of the Red River was part of Rupert's Land, the concession established by the British Hudson's Bay Company in north central North America. The Red was a key trade route for the company, and contributed to the settlement of British North America. The river was long used by fur traders, including the French and the Métis people, who established a community in this area some time before the British defeated France in the Seven Years' War. Following that, they took over French possessions in Canada. Settlers of the Red River Colony established farming along the river, and their primary settlement developed as Winnipeg, Manitoba. What became known as the Red River Trails, nineteenth-century oxcart trails developed originally by the Métis, supported the fur trade and these settlements. They contributed to further development of the region on both sides of the international border.


Red River in Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Red River in Greater Grand Forks, as viewed from the Grand Forks side of the river
The Red River near Pembina, North Dakota, about 3 kilometres (2 mi) south of the Canada–U.S. border. The Pembina River can be seen flowing into the Red at the bottom.

The Red River begins at the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers, on the border of Wahpeton, North Dakota and Breckenridge, Minnesota. Downstream, it is bordered by the twin cities of Fargo, North Dakota – Moorhead, Minnesota, and Grand Forks, North Dakota – East Grand Forks, Minnesota. It crosses the Canada–United States border just before reaching the town of Emerson, Manitoba. Manitoba's capital, Winnipeg, is at the Red's confluence with the Assiniboine River, at a point called The Forks. Together with the Assiniboine, the Red River fully encloses the endorheic basin of Devils' Lake and Stump Lake.

The Red flows further north before draining into Lake Winnipeg which then drains through the Nelson River into Hudson Bay, both part of the Hudson Bay watershed. The mouth of the Red River forms a freshwater river delta called the Netley–Libau Marsh.[4] The Netley Marsh is west of the Red and the Libau Marsh is east, forming a 26,000-hectare (64,000-acre) wetland.

Southern Manitoba has a frost-free season of between 120 and 140 days per year in the Red River Valley.[5]



The Red River flows across the flat lake bed of the ancient glacial Lake Agassiz, an enormous glacial lake created at the end of the Wisconsin glaciation from meltwaters of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. As this continental glacier decayed, its meltwaters formed the lake. Over thousands of years, sediments precipitated to the bottom of the lakebed. These lacustrine soils are the parent soils of today's Red River Valley. The river is very young; it developed only after Lake Agassiz drained, about 9,500 years ago.[6]

The word "valley" is a misnomer. While the Red River drains the region, it did not create a valley wider than a few hundred feet. The much wider floodplain is the lake bed of the ancient glacial lake.[7] It is remarkably flat; from its origin near Breckenridge, Minnesota, to the international border near Emerson, Manitoba, its gradient is only about 1:5000 (1 metre per 5 kilometres), or approximately 1 foot per mile. The river, slow and small in most seasons, does not have the energy to cut a gorge. Instead it meanders across the silty bottomlands in its progress north.[7][8] In consequence, high water has nowhere to go, except to spread across the old lakebed in "overland flooding". Heavy snows or rains, especially on saturated or frozen soil, have caused a number of catastrophic floods, which often are made worse by the fact that snowmelt starts in the warmer south, and waters flowing northward are often dammed or slowed by ice.[7][9] These periodic floods have the effect of refilling, in part, the ancient lake.[8]


The Fargo-Moorhead "toll bridge" (a low-water crossing) during 2023 spring flood. The water level was at 29.5 ft (9.0 m), just below the threshold for a major flood.

Floods happen in the Red River when the water level increases over the tops of riverbanks due to significant precipitation over the same area for long periods, in the forms of persistent thunderstorms, rain, or snow combined with spring snow melt and ice jam.[10] Major floods in historic times include those of 1826, 1897, 1950, 1997, 2009, 2011, and there has been significant flooding many years in between.[11][12][13] Geologists have found evidence of many other floods in prehistoric times of equal or greater size. These "paleofloods" are known from their effects on local landforms, and have been the subject of scholarly studies.[14] After the disastrous 1950 flood, which resulted in extensive property damage and losses in Winnipeg, the province of Manitoba undertook flood prevention by constructing the Red River Floodway. Completed in 1968, it diverts floodwaters around the city to less settled areas farther down the river. Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, suffered widespread destruction in the flood of 1997. 75% of the population in the former city was evacuated, and all of the latter. Many of the residential areas along the rivers were inundated and all the homes had to be destroyed. Afterward, a massive flood protection project was undertaken to protect both cities. Atashi et al. study conducted spatial analyses of the Permanent Water Area (PWA) and Seasonal Water Area (SWA), revealing a specific vulnerable section near Grafton city, located between Grand Forks and Emerson, that is highly susceptible to severe floods.

1950 flood


On May 8, 1950, the Red River reached its highest level at Winnipeg since 1861.[15] Eight dikes protecting Winnipeg gave way and flooded much of the city, turning 1,600 km2 (600 sq mi) of farmland into an enormous lake. The city turned to the Canadian Army and the Red Cross and The Salvation Army for help, and nearly 70,000 people were evacuated from their homes and businesses. Four of eleven bridges in the city were destroyed, and damage was estimated at between $900 million and $1 billion.

As a result of the floods, a flood control project was constructed to prevent such damage in the future. The Red River Floodway around Winnipeg attracted some derision at the time, as some people thought it was massively overbuilt and was the then-largest earth-moving project in the world.[citation needed] The project was completed under-budget, and has been used for at least some flood control 20 times in the 37 years from its completion to 2006. The Floodway has saved an estimated CA$10 billion in flood damages.[citation needed]

1997 flood


In the spring of 1997 a major flood of the Red River caused a total of $3.5 billion in damage and required temporary evacuation of towns and cities on both sides of the border. The cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and East Grand Forks, Minnesota, suffered the most damage, and most of their populations had to be evacuated. The river crested at more than 54 feet (16 m) above datum.

The cities worked with FEMA and the state of Minnesota to clear the floodplains of the river on both sides, prohibiting future housing or businesses in this area. They created the Greater Grand Forks Greenway on both sides, which includes city and state parks, a long bike trail, and other recreational amenities. The trees and greenery help absorb floodwaters. A dike system was constructed outside this area on both sides to protect the cities from future floods. In East Grand Forks, a removable flood wall was constructed in the downtown area so that residents did not lose their connection to the river.

In Winnipeg, the flood crested at 24.5 feet (7.5 m) above datum at the James Avenue pumping station, making it the third-highest flood at Winnipeg in recorded history. It was surpassed by the floods of 1825, and 1826. The city was largely spared the fate of Grand Forks thanks to the Floodway, which was pushed to its capacity during the 1997 flood.[16]

2009 flood


In 2009 the Red River flooded in early spring. By Friday, March 27, the river at Fargo had reached the highest level in recorded history.[17][18] Its discharge at that location was far in excess of normal flows.[19] The river crested at the James Avenue pumping station in Winnipeg at 22.5 feet (6.9 m) above datum, making it the fourth-highest flood in recorded history.[16]

2011 flood


Due to a wet summer in 2010, as well as an above average amount of snowfall through the winter in the Red River Valley, the Red River spilled its banks. It crested in Winnipeg at the James Avenue pumping station at 19.59 feet (5.97 m) above datum, as the sixth highest flood levels in recorded history if flood protection such as the Portage Diversion and the Red River Floodway were not in place.[20] That same year there was a surprise major flood on the Assiniboine River. In May 2011, a Manitoba-wide state of emergency was declared in the wake of a 300-year flood on the Assiniboine River at Brandon. Many residents had to be evacuated.[21][22][23]

Flow rates and flood potential


Below are the estimated, measured, and calculated peak flow rates of the Red River at various locations for the top ten floods of the Red River Valley, as measured at Winnipeg.

Location 1826 peak flow (cfs) 1852 peak flow (cfs) 1997 peak flow (cfs) 2009 peak flow (cfs) 1861 peak flow (cfs) 2011 peak flow (cfs) 1950 peak flow (cfs) 1979 peak flow (cfs) 1996 peak flow (cfs) 2006 peak flow (cfs)
Wahpeton-Breckenridge[24] 12,800 15,400 10,240 7,050 10,720
Fargo-Moorhead[24] 28,000 29,500 26,200 17,300 19,900
Grand Forks-East Grand Forks[24][25] 135,000 95,000 114,000 76,700 65,000 86,100 54,000 82,000 58,100 72,800
Emerson/Pembina[24][25] 151,000 133,000 87,900 84,700 95,500 92,700 66,700 73,500
Winnipeg[26] 225,000 165,000 163,000 128,000 125,000 116,000 108,000 108,000 108,000 99,000

See also



  1. ^ Atlas of Canada. "Rivers of Canada". Archived from the original on 2012-03-29. Retrieved 2008-08-02.
  2. ^ "Red River of the North State Water Trail". Minnesota DNR. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
  3. ^ Red River Map 3, Minnesota DNR; map shows the international border at river mile 155.
  4. ^ Environment Canada; Manitoba Water Stewardship (June 2011). Lévesque, Lucie; Page, Elaine; et al. (eds.). "State of Lake Winnipeg: 1999 to 2007" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on January 19, 2017. Retrieved November 6, 2018. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ Microsoft Encarta 2005. Retrieved on October 18, 2008.
  6. ^ Schwert, Don (interviewed by Tom Crann), "The geology of the Red River flood plain", Minnesota Public Radio, 25 March 2005. Taped interview.
  7. ^ a b c Schwert, Donald P. "A Brief Overview of the Geology of the Fargo – Moorhead Region, North Dakota – Minnesota". Fargo Geology. North Dakota State University.
  8. ^ a b Meryhew, Richard (March 24, 2009). "Geology set the Red River on a course for flooding". Minneapolis Star-Tribune. p. 1.
  9. ^ Puxley, Chinta (27 March 2009). "Manitoba flood forecasters say don't be alarmed by flooding in Dakota". Yahoo! News Canada.[permanent dead link]
  10. ^ Atashi, Vida (2022). "Water Level Forecasting Using Deep Learning Time-Series Analysis: A Case Study of Red River of the North". Water. 14 (12): 1971. doi:10.3390/w14121971.
  11. ^ "Major Historical Floods in the Red River Basin". Archived from the original on 2008-08-27. Retrieved 2007-11-16.
  12. ^ Red River of the North at Wahpeton, North Dakota – National Weather Service
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2009-03-22. Retrieved 2007-11-16.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ ""Paleofloods in the Red River Basin"". Archived from the original on 2005-03-31. Retrieved 2017-09-10.
  15. ^ "Winnipeg Flood – 1950". SOS! Canadian Disasters: Water. Library and Archives Canada. 14 February 2006.
  16. ^ a b "An Overview of 2009 Spring Flooding in Manitoba" (PDF). Province of Manitoba. August 2009.
  17. ^ Gunderson, Dan; Robertson, Tom; Nelson, Tim (2009-03-27). "Red River tops historic marker, undermines dike". Minnesota Public Radio. Retrieved 2009-03-27.
  18. ^ Kolpack, Dave (March 28, 2009). "Red River valley gets good news in new flood forecast". Minnesota Public Radio. (AP)
  19. ^ "Real-Time Water Data for Red River of the North at Fargo, ND". National Water Information System: Web Interface. United States Geological Survey. 27 March 2009.
  20. ^ "The Red River reached an open water crest in Winnipeg at James Avenue yesterday at 19.59 feet". Manitoba Floods. 6 May 2011. Archived from the original on 20 August 2011.
  21. ^ "Evacuees wait to return home as Brandon faces one-in-300-year flood". CTV news. 10 May 2011. Retrieved 2012-09-03.
  22. ^ "Title unknown". The Canadian Press. Archived from the original on 2013-01-02. Retrieved 2012-09-03.
  23. ^ "Provincial State of Emergency Declared". CJOB 68. May 9, 2011. Archived from the original on March 31, 2012. Retrieved 2012-09-03.
  24. ^ a b c d "Long Term Flood Solutions For the Red River Basin" (PDF). Red River Basin Commission. September 2011. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2013-12-15.
  25. ^ a b "Long Term Flood Solutions For the Red River Basin Appendix B" (PDF). Red River Basin Commission. September 30, 2011.[permanent dead link]
  26. ^ "Flood Fighting in Manitoba" (PDF). Province of Manitoba. 2013.