James River deemed unstable

Kelda J.L. Pharris

The James River is dangerous.

Flooding issues plaguing the waterway used for sport and recreation will stretch into another season and add another layer of complications.

The Dickey County Sheriff’s Office has asked that people stay off the river. The department posted 20 signs at major winter access points used by those who are ice fishing and snowmobiling, said Sheriff Chris Estes. The dangerous conditions including unstable ice that isn’t safe for its normal winter uses.

The issues start upstream at the Jamestown and Pipestem dams in North Dakota. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing water at unprecedented times of year at levels that are equally unprecedented.

“Unprecedented is a good word for it,” said Jessica Batterman, with the Corps of Engineers.

Currently the Jamestown reservoir is at 1,440.7 feet. The base of flood control is 1,431 feet. Water is 9 feet over the flood control cap, so the Corps continues to release water.

Icicles form as turbulent water is released at the outlet of the Jamestown Dam. Jamestown, N.D., Sun photo by John M. Steiner

The releases are well above the 2008-17 average of 16 cubic feet per second for December at the Jamestown dam release and 17 cubic feet per second at Pipestem. Both dams eventually flow into the James River.

The release of water downstream helps negate flooding but also exacerbates unstable ice conditions.

“The thing is, they’re going to run that river all winter and the ice isn’t going to have time to set up,” said Dickey County Emergency Manager Charlie Russell. “If you have that ice crust on top, a big gap forms (underneath). Then, with currents, you fall through the ice (and) you’re going to be in Nebraska before anyone’s getting to you.”

Although there haven’t been any notices posted in Brown County, there have been discussions among the sheriff’s department, the rescue dive team and the Emergency Management office.

“They’re pretty much right,” said Brown County Emergency Manager Scott Meints. “It is going to be dangerous with ice levels and then water dropping — a very dangerous situation on the rivers and lakes.”

The Brown County departments have not drawn up formal precautions or notified snowmobilers or ice anglers to stay off the river.

The conditions of the river, with the complications of snow, have essentially maxed out the Dickey County departments’ rescue capabilities, according to Russell and Estes.

In fall, the James flooded roads near the state line, specifically on North Dakota Highway 1 in Dickey County and State Highway 37 in Brown County. Many county roads have become impassable due to flooding and weather making, it difficult for first responders to get around.

If people are found on the James River in Dickey County they will be asked to leave. If they are uncooperative or are repeatedly found on the river, the sheriff’s department can issue citations or file charges. North Dakota Game and Fish is aware of the situation and is in support of the signs restricting river access, said Mark Pollert, game warden supervisor based in Jamestown.

Pipestem Dam as seen on Dec. 4, 2019.
Notice signs posted along the James River by the Dickey County Sheriff’s Office warn of unstable and hazardous ice conditions that make any rescue attempts nearly impossible. Courtesy photo
Pipestem Dam as seen on Dec. 4, 2019. 
Pipestem Dam as seen on Dec. 4, 2019. 
Pipestem Dam as seen on Dec. 4, 2019.