OMAHA, Neb. – Several states along the Missouri River face an elevated flood risk this spring because the soil remains wet and a significant amount of snow is on the ground in the Dakotas, the National Weather Service said Thursday.
The forecast heightened concerns in areas of Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri with levees that still have extensive damage from massive flooding last year and where residents and officials already anticipated some flooding.
“We are very concerned at this point,” said Jud Kneuvean, who oversees emergency operations at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Kansas City office.
The weather service said Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri and eastern North Dakota and South Dakota face an above-average flood risk this spring. The flood risk is close to normal in Montana and the western half of the Dakotas.
Even in places where the Corps has patched holes in levees that were damaged in last year's flooding, the level of protection may be lower than it was because initial repairs haven't all been done to the full regular height of the levees.
Officials say levee repairs will likely take two years to complete.
The status of levees varies greatly. In Iowa and Nebraska, many of the major levees have been patched, although some breaches remain open. In Kansas and Missouri, much of the repair work has yet to begin.
Part of the problem is that the water remained high for so long in some areas that officials couldn't even assess some of the damage until recently.
In Missouri's hard-hit Holt County, where Tom Bullock serves as emergency management director, repairs have not yet started on the levees that broke and allowed roughly 95,000 acres (38,445.17 hectares) of mostly rural land to flood last spring.
“We’re not looking very good for spring,” Bullock said.
While most of the breaches around Hamburg, Iowa, have been patched, some repairs probably won't be done before spring, said Fremont County Emergency Manager Mike Crecelius.
“It’s not a good outlook no matter how you look at it,” Crecelius said.
The Missouri is the longest river in North America, running from western Montana through the Dakotas and touching Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas before cutting across Missouri and entering the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The Corps of Engineers manages the river's flow using six dams and reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas.
Even if spring weather is mild, some places could still see flooding when the Corps increases releases from upstream dams on the river to prevent the reservoirs from overflowing.
The Corps estimates 2020 runoff will reach 36.3 million acre-feet (44.8 cubic kilometers) — the ninth highest out of 122 years — so there will likely be significant water releases from the upriver dams. The highest runoff year was 2011 with 61 million acre-feet (75.2 cubic kilometers), followed by 2019, with 60.9 million acre-feet (75.1 cubic kilometers).
Much of the land in low-lying areas nearest the river is cropland, so that often floods first, limiting damage to homes and businesses.
Farmer Gene Walter noted that the private levees that used to protect his cropland north of Council Bluffs, Iowa, remain wide open. Repairs won’t be complete in time for typical spring flooding in March. So it could be a day-to-day decision for Walter on which acres to plant.
“You can’t even plan or make plans," Walter said. "It’s kind of upsetting.”