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As water releases swell, Missouri River gets plenty of attention

Water gushes through the Gavins Point Dam Friday near Yankton, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to release water to alleviate the quickly filling Lewis and Clark Lake Reservoir. Releases were at 90,000 cubic feet per second on Friday, more than four times what they were earlier this week. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)1 / 3
Ice chunks pile up along the Missouri River east of Springfield on Friday. (Marcus Traxler / Republic) 2 / 3
Water gushes through the Gavins Point Dam Friday near Yankton, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to release water to alleviate the quickly filling Lewis and Clark Lake Reservoir. Releases were at 90,000 cubic feet per second on Friday, more than four times what they were earlier this week. (Marcus Traxler / Republic)3 / 3

SPRINGFIELD—The Missouri River was getting a lot of attention on Friday.

That included the Veterans Memorial Park lookout platform in Springfield. There was one way into the park because the roads were soft and soggy, emblematic of the entire southeast corner of the state after 3 inches of rain fell in the region earlier this week.

Holly Neth, who lives between Scotland and Tabor, and her 12-year-old son Steven were at the park lookout, taking photos for a 4-H project. They figured the high water on the South Dakota-Nebraska state line might be worth capturing.

"It's what's on everyone's minds, for sure," she said. "We've got water everywhere."

What they saw from the lookout was a half-thawed body of water that continues to swell, as tributaries, primarily the Niobrara River in Nebraska, send more water into Lewis and Clark Lake, the reservoir backed up behind Gavins Point Dam in Yankton. The power of that water went viral earlier this week when a dam near Spencer, Nebraska—located about 10 miles south of the South Dakota-Nebraska border—was breached, causing part of U.S. Highway 281 to be washed out, closing the highway. Towns downstream are expected to continue to deal with flooding in coming days.

As temperatures are expected to continue to warm to the 50s and potentially as high as 60 by the end of next week, a waiting game is underway for the water-watchers.

"We know we've got a long ways to go," said LeRoy Cooper, who lives in Springfield. "We know we're going to have more flooding."

Cooper was at the Gavins Point Dam visitors center, located on the Nebraska side of the dam. Hundreds of vehicles were streaming through the parking lots near the dam, getting a chance to see the water continue gushing through the dam's gates on Friday.

"It's just impressive, you know?" Cooper said. "You look at it and you can't help but be amazed."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the dam, has increased the discharges through the Gavins Point Dam repeatedly this week, up to 90,000 cubic feet per second on Thursday night, and even reaching 100,000 cubic feet per second for a point overnight into Friday. That's a release rate that hasn't been witnessed since the 2011 Missouri River flood. Earlier this week releases were measured as low as 17,000 cubic feet per second.

At the dam, 12 of the 14 spillway bays and powerhouses are being used to pass the flows, while the other two bays are partially open but frozen in place due to ice buildup. Farther upstream, the corps stopped all releases from the Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown to reduce the amount of water in the lower Missouri River.

"However, because there is very little storage capacity behind Gavins Point, most of what is flowing into the reservoir must be released downstream," the corps said in a news release late Thursday. "Despite these efforts, communities from Sioux City, Iowa to St. Louis, Missouri, continue to experience flooding, or the threat of flooding, due to runoff from the numerous rivers and creeks through the lower section of the river."

The remnants of the last few days' wicked weather remained obvious throughout the southeastern part of the state, as more highways re-opened and temperatures climbed above freezing and closer to 40 degrees, with the sun reemerging. Piled snow on the sides of streets next to standing water in homeowners' yards. Gravel roads in Bon Homme and Hutchinson counties are washed out and blocked off, and State Highway 46—which provides the usual route for the Neth family to get south—remains closed, so they took the long way around to see the river.

Low-lying areas east of Springfield remained flooded, and in some places, mattress-like chunks of ice remained perched in the water. The community still had a water restriction in place at midday Friday, asking residents to refrain from using water as much as possible.

"It was plenty wet," Cooper said. "But to be honest, we're doing pretty good, all things considered."

So far, the sump pump at the Neth home has done the job, keeping the water out, even if she has plenty in the yard around her house.

"We've got a lake view right now," she joked. She noted that the they've been battling water since last summer, when heavy rains drenched many of these same areas.

Noem makes emergency declaration

Gov. Kristi Noem signed an emergency declaration Friday that allows the use of additional state funds for South Dakota counties impacted by this week's blizzard and flood.

"The storms this week have been extremely difficult for many of our communities," Noem said in a statement. "This has been a statewide emergency with people impacted by heavy snow, high winds, rain, and freezing rain. This emergency declaration provides state agencies flexibility to help counties recover."

The extra money comes from the state's Disaster Fund. The money can be used for costs incurred by state agencies for resources deployed to the scene at the request of a county. The emergency order also allows for the activation of the South Dakota National Guard if necessary.

Noem said the state has been providing resources and technical assistance as needed to those counties dealing with the storm's aftermath. Departments like Public Safety and Transportation have been working with affected counties before the storm's onset earlier this week. On Thursday, Noem activated the State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) that is being used to help coordinate the state's response.

"We have an obligation to help counties, and we will," said Noem. "We want to ensure our infrastructure remains strong during this period and people get the help they need."

Depending on the extent of damage, the state may eventually request a Presidential Disaster Declaration asking for federal funds to aid recovery efforts.

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