South Dakota residents are keeping an eye toward the skies as they hope for a drier 2020 than they experienced in 2019.
According to experts, they will get their wish to start the season. But more precipitation is likely on the way eventually, threatening to cause more problems for farmers in the fields, homeowners and their basements and county officials struggling to maintain roads and infrastructure after the all-time wettest year in South Dakota history.
“The next few weeks look relatively dry,” said Laura Edwards, state climatologist for South Dakota. “As we get later, it looks like a wetter pattern is more likely into April, May and June. We’re looking at wetter than average.”
Edwards said a number of factors will determine how much residents will have to deal with this spring. Of course, precipitation will be the most important variable. But others, such as temperature, existing subsoil moisture and the rate of snow melt will all likely contribute to how messy things will get in the next few months.
“With temperatures, there are some ups and downs through March. But the first couple of weeks look on the warm side, probably warmer than average,” Edwards said of the long-term forecast. “Deeper into the spring, there’s a little less certainty in temperature as we go further into May and June.”
Warm temperatures help speed the evaporation of moisture on the ground, helping to dry out low-lying spots. That will be beneficial considering how wet the ground is currently, Edwards said.
“The soil is very wet, much wetter than last year. It’s among the wettest for this time of year as far as soil moisture goes,” Edwards said. “It’s still hard to move equipment.”
River flooding expected
Whatever happens with rainfall this spring, flooding on some level will be inevitable, Edwards said. There is still some snow pack left to melt in North Dakota and the northern portion of South Dakota. That runoff will find its way into South Dakota rivers that are already overloaded from last year.
“Flooding is the big question. The James River near Mitchell is again in flood stage. It did go down below flood stage, but it’s just flirting with that,” Edwards said. “There is going to be a lot of water running through the James. A major flood is expected all up and down the river. You can’t avoid it given where we’re starting now.”
The river is still moving water that fell last year, she said.
“It takes so long for the water to move through the system,” Edwards said.
She noted that Gavins Point Dam near Yankton increased releases from about 17,000 cubic feet per second to around 35,000 cubic feet per second recently, which should alleviate some of the water issues in rivers like the James.
“(The United States Army Corps of Engineers) reported that they will be frequently adjusting releases at Gavins Point. They moved all their water through the system so they had the maximum capacity to take in the flood waters this spring,” Edwards said.
The National Weather Service Missouri Basin River Forecast Center in Pleasant Hill, Missouri predicts a flood risk of above normal for North Dakota, eastern South Dakota, eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, eastern Kansas and most of Missouri. The James River and Big Sioux River are expected to suffer major flooding this spring and early summer. The center is also predicting minor flooding along Split Rock Creek and Firesteel Creek.
The James River has been in flood stage for 349 consecutive days as of Feb. 26.
Rural roads still recovering
Mike Kotab, emergency manager for Charles Mix County, said the county is still dealing with issues from last year, which he said was the worst in the county since he arrived in 2010.
One of the main issues is repairing and maintaining rural roads that were damaged or flooded out during the historic 2019 rains. Those roads in the county are operating at around half to three-quarters capacity, he said.
“I would say the roads are probably 70 to 75 percent. The township roads are probably closer to 50 percent,” Kotab said. “They are drivable, but not to the standard they were prior.”
Kotab said county employees are planning ahead in preparation for any potential complications this spring, but the speed of recovery from last year’s flooding is mostly dependent on what type of weather the area receives. In this case, he said warm days and relatively cool evenings will prevent the remaining snow on the ground from melting too quickly and compounding the problem.
“(We’re) looking for dry and warm days. Not hot days, and still cool at night, so it slows the thaw down a little bit,” Kotab said. “In the northern part of the county there is a little more snow, but (the weather) this last weekend took care of quite a bit of it.”
Farmers deal with what they can
Lee Friesen, of Olivet, raises corn, soybeans and alfalfa on his farm along Lone Tree Creek near the James River. He said recent weather conditions - warm temperatures and wind - were encouraging and hoped they would continue to help get conditions under control.
“I can see that if the current weather pattern that we’ve been experiencing the last few days continues, I think our spring will be OK,” Friesen said. “But there’s a lot of time between now and planting. While it’s only a month away, the weather can still dramatically change.”
Friesen said he lost a lot of cropland to flooding last year, and much of what he was able to get in the field was flooded out after the fact.
“We did get some ground in, but that proved to be a bad choice because we got some in and it got flooded out. It was just a bad year overall,” Friesen said.
There’s not much that producers can do to change their ability to get into the field under such conditions, Friesen said, although he has changed the location where he stores his hay. He also raises livestock, and he has adjusted his procedures in the last few years to make life a little easier on himself and the cattle.
“As far as planting goes, you have to take it as it comes. You can’t make too many adjustments and you can’t control the weather,” Friesen said. “But we actually pushed our calving back until May 1 to avoid the real cold, rainy wet weather that we normally get. That’s been a good change.”
Experts: Prepare for wet days
Edwards said the biggest key to a better spring this year is simple: less precipitation.
“I think we need dry conditions first, just to stop getting more water,” Edwards said. “If it stopped raining we still have good soil moisture and the cropping guys could get more work done.”
Edwards encouraged residents to make preparations for wet conditions now.
“Anything they can do to get ready. Check your sump pumps, some have been running for almost a year now. On the ag side, we’re in calving season, and if you need to move animals or equipment, get everything staged for high water,” Edwards said. “On the community side, if anybody is thinking about sandbagging, get those resources pulled together for when you need it.”
Friesen, like many South Dakota farmers, is hoping for the best and prepared for the worst. After that, a positive attitude is the best approach to uncertain times.
“There are factors we can control, and those we cannot. Weather is one of those we cannot control, but if we can focus on work and items within our control, that’s the best we can do.”