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Red River of the North


Red River of the North

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
Countries United States, Canada
Regions Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba
Part of Nelson River basin
 - left Bois de Sioux River, Wild Rice River (North Dakota), Sheyenne River, Elm River, Turtle River, Pembina River, Assiniboine River
 - right Otter Tail River, Buffalo River, Wild Rice River (Minnesota), Red Lake River, Roseau River, Seine River (Manitoba)
Cities Fargo, North Dakota, Grand Forks, North Dakota, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Selkirk, Manitoba
Source Confluence of Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail Rivers
 - location Wahpeton, North Dakota
 - elevation 948 ft (289 m)
 - coordinates
Mouth Lake Winnipeg
 - elevation 712 ft (217 m)
 - coordinates
Length 550 mi (885 km)
Basin 111,004 sq mi (287,499 km2) [1]
Discharge for Lockport, Manitoba, 20 miles (32 km) above the mouth
 - average 8,617 cu ft/s (244 m3/s)
 - max 152,900 cu ft/s (4,330 m3/s)
 - min 491 cu ft/s (14 m3/s)
The Red River drainage basin, with the Red River highlighted
Part of a series on the
Red River of the North
Major Floods
Related Topics

The Red River (French: Rivière rouge or Rivière Rouge du Nord, American English: Red River of the North) is a North American river. 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 the border of Minnesota and North Dakota and continuing into Manitoba, Canada. It empties into Lake Winnipeg, whose waters join the Nelson River and ultimately flow into the Hudson Bay.

The Red River flows through several urban areas along its path, including those of Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks in the United States and Winnipeg in Canada. The Red 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.

In the United States, the Red River is sometimes called the Red River of the North, to distinguish it from the Red River that is a tributary of the Atchafalaya River, and that forms part of the border between Texas and Oklahoma.

Long a highway for trade, the Red has been designated as a Canadian Heritage River.


The watershed of the Red River was part of Rupert's Land, the Hudson's Bay Company concession 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 stream was used by fur traders, including the Métis people, and by the settlers of the Red River Colony, the primary settlement of which eventually became Winnipeg, Manitoba. The river gave its name to the Red River Trails, nineteenth-century oxcart trails which supported this trade and these settlements, and which led 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 in the Red at the bottom.

The Red River forms at Wahpeton, North Dakota, and Breckenridge, Minnesota, passes through Fargo, North Dakota, – Moorhead, Minnesota, and Grand Forks, North Dakota, – East Grand Forks, Minnesota, and then continues on to the province of Manitoba in Canada. Manitoba's capital, Winnipeg, is at the Red's confluence with the Assiniboine River, at a point commonly referred to as The Forks. Together with the Assiniboine, the Red River fully encloses the endorheic basin of Devils' Lake and Stump Lake.

The Red then flows further north before draining into Lake Winnipeg which is part of the Hudson Bay watershed through the Nelson River. 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 to form a 26,000-hectare (64,000-acre) wetland.

Southern Manitoba has a comparatively long frost-free season, between 120 and 140 days in the Red River Valley.[5]


The Red River flows across the flat lakebed 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, and 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 itself is very young; it began 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, and the much-wider floodplain is the lakebed of the glacial lake.[7] It is remarkably flat; from its origin near Breckenridge, Minnesota, to the international border near [7][8] In consequence, high water has nowhere to go, except to spread across the old lakebed in "overland flooding". Heavy snows or rains, 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]


Major floods in historic times include those of 1826, 1897, 1950, 1997, 2009, 2011, and many years in between have seen significant flooding.[10] There have been 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.[11] Flooding has been such a concern for Winnipeg that it warranted the construction of the Red River Floodway. Grand Forks, North Dakota took a similar precaution after the flood of 1997, constructing a removable flood wall.

1950 flood

On May 8, 1950 the Red River reached its highest level at Winnipeg since 1861.[12] Eight dikes protecting Winnipeg gave way and flooded much of the city, turning 600 square miles (1,554 km2) of farmland into an enormous lake. The city turned to the Canadian Army and the Red Cross 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 started to ensure the same would never happen again. The Red River Floodway around Winnipeg was cause for some derision at the time, as it seemed massively overbuilt and was the then-largest earth-moving project in the world. 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 $10 billion (CAD) in flood damages.

1997 flood

In the spring of 1997 a major flood of the Red River caused $3.5 billion in damage and required temporary evacuation of towns and cities on both sides of the border. The flood crested at 24.5 feet (7.5 m) above datum at the James Avenue pumping station in Winnipeg making it the third highest flood at Winnipeg in recorded history only being surpassed by the floods of 1852, and 1826.[13]

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,[14][15] and its discharge at that location was far in excess of normal flows.[16] The water ended up cresting 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.[13]

2011 flood

Due to a wet summer in 2010 as well as an above average amount of snowfall in the Red River Valley, The Red River spilled its banks and Red River 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.[17] As the Red River was not a major concern in 2011, all of the attention turned to the surprise major flood on the Assiniboine River. In May 2011, a Manitoba-wide state of emergency was declared in the wake of a 1 in 300 year flood on the Assiniboine River at Brandon.[18][19][20]

Flow rates and flood potential

Below are the estimated, measured and calculated peak flow rates of the Red River at various locations of 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[21] - - 12,800 15,400 - 10,240 - 7,050 - 10,720
Fargo-Moorhead[21] - - 28,000 29,500 - 26,200 - 17,300 - 19,900
Grand Forks-East Grand Forks[22] [21] 135,000 95,000 114,000 76,700 65,000 86,100 54,000 82,000 58,100 72,800
Emerson/Pembina[22][21] 151,000 - 133,000 87,900 - 84,700 95,500 92,700 66,700 73,500
Winnipeg[23] 225,000 165,000 163,000 128,000 125,000 116,000 108,000 108,000 108,000 99,000

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Red River of the North, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
  3. ^ Red River Map 3, Minnesota DNR; map shows the international border at river mile 155.
  4. ^
  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
  8. ^ a b
  9. ^
  10. ^ Major Historical Floods in the Red River Basin
  11. ^ Paleofloods in the Red River Basin
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^
  15. ^ (AP)
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ a b c d
  22. ^ a b
  23. ^

External links

  • Flows and forecasts for the Red River.
  • Geological Survey of Canada page describing the nature and history of Red River floods.
  • Minnesota DNR Red River website
  • U.S. Geological Survey Reports and Abstracts Related to the Red River of the North
  • Water Quality in the Red River of the North
  • Flood management in the Red River Basin
  • Fish of the Red River–Red River Angler's Guide
  • North Dakota State University's Fargo Flood website
  • Steamboats on the Red Documentary produced by Prairie Public Television
  • Red River stream gage map with touch-friendly interface
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