Spring forecast shows low probability of major flooding

Shannon Marvel smarvel@aberdeennews.com
Farm Forum

For local farmers who have land along the James River, the arrival of spring is often dampened by concerns about the prospect of flooding from snowmelt and rain.

Luckily, there’s no expectation that water levels will rise beyond the river banks this year, according to the flood and water release outlook from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District.

Even though winter precipitation has been above average, there’s no significant chance that the James River will reach the maximum flood stage, and only a 20- to 40-percent chance it will reach moderate flood stage, said Jessica Batterman, hydraulic engineer for the corps.

She is responsible for releasing water from the Jamestown and Pipestem dams along the James River in North Dakota. That water ultimately flows south into South Dakota, crossing the state line into Brown County.

Batterman spoke in Redfield recently to James River Water Development District board members. Farmers at the meeting didn’t voice concerns about flood outlook.

Early snowmelt from springlike temperatures in late February and the first week of March elevated river water levels 2 inches at the most, she said.

There’s an 80 percent chance the river will reach minor flood stage at Columbia and Stratford, Batterman said.

“And if you weren’t already aware, Columbia has already exceeded minor flood stage this year, as well as at Huron,” she said.

That didn’t cause any problems.

The river is no longer in flood stage at Columbia, according to Brown County Emergency Management Director Scott Meints.

The National Weather Service defines three levels of flooding: minor, moderate and major.

Minor flood stage means water levels could result in minimal or no property damage. Moderate flood stage means some likely inundation of buildings and roads near a body of water and possible evacuations of people and property. Major flood stage means extensive flooding of structures and roads and significant evacuations.

Meints said the recent reports from the corps aren’t concerning.

“But anything is possible,” he said.

“That’s only a couple big snowstorms and a big rain event in the spring to change. We shouldn’t have anything too horrible. I’m guessing the river will probably come up once we see some Jamestown snowmelt come down,” he said.

Meints said any water from North Dakota should flow nicely downstream without causing problems.

According to a report from Jay Peterson, the deputy project leader for Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the refuge was able to absorb most of the recent snowmelt, Batterman said.

“Elm Lake is currently over-full and spilling into Sand Lake,” she said.

Batterman said Sand Lake is full and releasing flows at the maximum level. That water flows to the south into the James. The plan is to keep the lake half full through the summer, she said. That means the refuge will continue to release water, at least in the near future.

More precipitation than usual is expected in the James River Basin into May, Batterman said.

And soil in South Dakota is fairly saturated, the result of heavy rain that fell before the fall freeze.

“It’s like frozen mud right now,” Batterman explained.

Saturated soil renders the ground unable to absorb more precipitation and leads to an increase in runoff when it rains.

Still, the spring forecast for flooding does not indicate cause for concern, she said.

But trying to predict what Mother Nature will do is never easy.

“We’re not through winter yet. If we do see above-average precipitation in the spring and summer, that could change things,” Batterman said.

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