FARGO - Red River gumbo clay is some of the best dirt imaginable to use as material for emergency flood levees. But it has an unfortunate tendency to crack.
"Any time anybody sees a crack in a levee, it's a little bit alarming," Tim Bertschi said Thursday afternoon on a tour of levee inspections.
Bertschi talked as he drove along an emergency levee along Second Street near City Hall that dwarfed his sport utility vehicle.
"It's nothing seriously dangerous to the levee," he said, holding a photo of a fresh crack he'd been given, "but something to keep an eye on to make sure things don't change."
As a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bertschi oversees construction and maintenance of 9½ miles of primary emergency dikes under corps management protecting Fargo from the Red River.
National Guard patrols were to begin walking the levees Thursday night, as the river creeps toward its expected weekend crest. It's part of ongoing monitoring to make sure the levees are OK.
"Kind of the key word is always 'change,' " Bertschi said. Observers look for unusual pooling of water, large or expanding cracks, or muddy water, a sign material could be eroding.
In the event of trouble signs, response teams are ready to investigate and take action, if needed.
With so many successive major floods, permanent protections keep getting better, so fewer emergency levees are required than before, making Bertschi's job a bit easier.
"It will require less and less every year," he said. "I think Fargo will be at this for a few years yet."
In years past, planning for flood fights began in mid-February.
This year's battle plan started taking shape in early January when it was apparent ingredients were in place for a major spring flood.
"You can never plan enough," Bertschi said. "You've got to be constantly planning."
For his role in the epic record flood of 2009, Bertschi was recognized with the corps' Emergency Manager of the Year Award, an honor he said is shared with his many colleagues and collaborators.
Bertschi, a native of southwest Minnesota, came to Fargo in 1987 and battled his first flood in 1989. The crest, 34 or 35 feet, was considered impressive at the time. He's seen a lot of floods since, including 1997 and 2009.
Volunteers rightly get lots of credit for manning the sandbag barricades, Bertschi said. But contractors - heavy equipment operators and truck drivers - who build the clay levees deserve a lot of the credit, too.
"The contractors in this area are just out of this world, their skill and dedication," he said.
This year's Red River flood is predicted to crest between 39 and 40 feet in Fargo-Moorhead. Already, some tributaries, including North Dakota's Wild Rice River, appear to be ebbing.
But a lot of water continues to flow through the river systems.
"We kind of think it will be a high-duration event," Bertschi said. "The recession is pretty slow this year. That means there's a lot of volume."
In other words, all that clay will be working hard for a long time to keep the Red River at bay.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522