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Not enough snow to fret about flooding

As snow accumulation creeps higher, officials aren't worried about the melt just yet. The chance of flooding in Mitchell this spring is no higher than normal, according to Dave Bartel, district manager with the James River Water Development District.

Shanard Road northeast of Mitchell was closed as the James River flooded its bank in this file photo from March 2011. (Republic file photo)
Shanard Road northeast of Mitchell was closed as the James River flooded its bank in this file photo from March 2011. (Republic file photo)

As snow accumulation creeps higher, officials aren't worried about the melt just yet.

The chance of flooding in Mitchell this spring is no higher than normal, according to Dave Bartel, district manager with the James River Water Development District.

"I don't look for a lot of runoff come this spring," Bartel said. "As of right now, it does not look like it's going to be a big issue."

This winter, from Nov. 1 to Monday, Mitchell has received 33.7 inches of snow. That's just above average, according to meteorologist Matthew Dux with the National Weather Service in Sioux Falls.

Dux said the Mitchell area typically receives about 30 inches of snow each winter, but the observed snowfall in the past three years has not reached that level. Mitchell received 21.9 inches of snow from November 2014 to February 2015, 22.2 inches from November 2013 to February 2014, and 21 inches the winter before.

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The winter of 2010/2011, however, broke the 30-inches average as Mitchell received 41.2 inches of snow, which was followed by a spring that saw heavy flooding of the James River.

Bartel said he recently visited Jamestown, North Dakota, the location of two dams where water is released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The dams are named Jamestown Dam, located on the James River, and Pipestem Dam, located on Pipestem Creek, which feeds into the James River in Jamestown.

Bartel said there was some snow, but it did not have a high-moisture content.

"To be honest, most of the lakes and the potholes are really low. Most of the potholes out in the country are dry," Bartel said.

Looking forward, Dux said there are not signs of higher-than-normal levels of precipitation, although it's difficult to give an accurate forecast more than two weeks in advance.

Dux also said temperatures were likely to rebound soon and reach above-normal temperatures in the first week of February and normal temperatures in spring.

But while there is no reason to worry about flooding yet, Dux said the possibility can't be ruled out.

"We still have a lot of winter to go," Dux said. "Our snowmelt season really isn't until the March timeframe to really start to worry about that."

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Dux said winter and spring storms can be unpredictable and could potentially cause unforeseen problems.

"Unfortunately, in winter time and especially spring time, instead of getting your precipitation spread out through the month, what can happen is you can get it all in one storm. We can't say that's what's going to happen this year, but that often does happen," Dux said.

Watching water levels

The depth of the James River, called "gage height" by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, normally spikes every spring or summer.

On Jan. 25, 2015, the depth of the James River near Mitchell was about 10.28 feet, according to U.S. Geological Survey statistics. The provisional depth on Monday was around 10.25 feet.

The greatest depth of the James River near Mitchell in the past five years was 25.16 feet, achieved on March 25, 2011, a year in which major flooding occurred near Mitchell. The depth reached 19.35 feet in 2012, 17.09 feet in 2013, 14.72 feet in 2014 and 15.45 feet in 2015.

Jessica Batterman, hydraulic engineer for the USACE Omaha District, is responsible for releasing water from the Jamestown and Pipestem dams. She said 1,800 cubic feet of water was released per second collectively from the two dams in 2011, which equaled the all-time record rate set in 2009, but the water was released in June. In March, only 12 cubic feet per second was released from Jamestown Dam, and between 7 and 70 cubic feet per second from Pipestem Dam.

"Generally we don't hit those maximums as early as March in the year. At that point, you're probably seeing more snowmelt runoff from areas downstream of the dam and down in South Dakota, snow coming off of all those farms and everything," Batterman said.

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Batterman said late April to June is when the USACE starts to increase releases from the dams.

In a medium flow year, 450 to 750 cubic feet of water is released per second in peak months, Batterman said.

Flooding is determined by a number of factors, including snow conditions, but right now, more snowfall should not cause concern for flooding, Batterman said.

In 2011, the USACE observed an average snow-water equivalent of 6 to 10 inches upstream of the reservoirs, Batterman said. This year, observation reports are between 1 and 4 inches.

Still, Batterman said it was too early to make any predictions.

"We're still very early in the year, and we don't know what kind of year it's going to be, so we can't predict anything with certainty," she said.

Batterman will meet with Bartel and the James River Water Development District board in March, after the USACE makes its initial forecast.

Unless the state is hit by heavy rain or wet snow, Bartel said there shouldn't be anything to worry about.

"I can tell you right now that the runoff that's here right now is not going to create a big problem, but what happens with the March wet snows and the early spring rains, that may put us into jeopardy again."

Related Topics: WEATHER
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