With the Missouri River already flooding and still rising, eastern Nebraskans fear a second punch as extraordinary snowmelt eventually washes down the Platte River and converges with the Missouri south of the Omaha area along the Sarpy-Cass County line.
But what is becoming quickly apparent in a state awash in water: Flooding is relative.
No one knows how much trouble the Platte will create for eastern Nebraska — its flows are exceptionally unpredictable.
However, officials say, there's some reason to hope that the Platte won't pose a catastrophic problem.
The wild card will be rain.
Locally heavy rains could cause flash flooding along area creeks, since there is nowhere for tributaries to drain, given that both the Platte and Missouri Rivers are too full to take any more water.
For now, concerns about the Platte are focused on western Nebraska, where the river has threatened a major economic lifeline, the Union Pacific rail line through North Platte.
“In any other year, if the Missouri River wasn't flooding, there would be a huge story on the Platte,” said Brian Dunnigan, head of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources.
“But given the magnitude of the flows on the Missouri, the Platte is getting a little bit overshadowed. ... It's a very serious situation, and we're watching it every day.”
The water content of snow in the mountains above the North Platte River is 327 percent of normal for this time of year, said John Lawson, Wyoming area manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
The bureau has worked since last fall to evacuate about 1 million acre-feet of water from its reservoirs, Lawson said. The out-of-the ordinary effort emptied the equivalent of about one-third of the Wyoming reservoirs' capacity.
“Does anybody know what will happen?” Lawson asked. “The only one who knows that is at a much higher level than you or I.”
At North Platte, the river has surged 1.7 feet over flood stage as a result of managed releases from the dam at Lake McConaughy.
Emergency repairs at North Platte have been made to a damaged levee. Officials have also dug a diversion ditch to drain water away from the city's airport, and a major effort is under way to protect the Union Pacific rail line.
“That rail line is a critical piece of infrastructure,” said Al Berndt, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
In an effort to save the rail line, officials have cut a gash in U.S. Highway 30 at North Platte so pent-up floodwaters can flow away from the rail line and to the river.
Berndt said Highway 30 will be closed for some time.
While carving a hole in a federal highway to save a railroad might seem extreme, Berndt said, it was necessary. Cars and trucks have multiple alternative routes, including nearby Interstate 80. But the rail line has nowhere else to go.
City officials believe that the work will pay off.
“At this point, we're probably in about as good a shape as we can be in trying to protect our city,” said Jim Hawks, North Platte city administrator.
In Scottsbluff, where the city could receive its worst flooding in 60 years, some of the local zoo animals have been moved to higher ground.
The little guys from the petting zoo have headed to a real farm; reptiles and varmints such as snakes, lizards and ferrets will go home with zookeepers; and animals the size of bobcats, raccoons and badgers are being moved to cages on high ground, said Anne James, executive director of the Riverside Discovery Center.
Larger animals such as tigers, lions and leopards will stay put. An engineer has evaluated the flood risk and said they should be OK, James said.
In eastern Nebraska, there's a good chance the snowmelt on the Platte won't bring a catastrophic double-punch, said Marlin Petermann, assistant general manager of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
The worst Platte-related flooding in eastern Nebraska might occur in the lakeside communities along the Platte — such as Hanson Lakes, Chris Lake and Buccaneer Bay.
“I don't think it's going to be significant, as far as we're understanding it,” Petermann said.
Rick Chermok of the National Weather Service concurred.
“Snowmelt alone probably won't add a tremendous amount (in eastern Nebraska),” Chermok said.
If severe flooding occurs along the Platte, it most likely will come from rain, he said. Last year's heavy rains and flooding along the Elkhorn River are just what officials don't want to see repeated.
Another wild card with the Platte is irrigation. If the summer is hot and dry, Nebraska farmers will draw significant flows away from the Platte to their fields.
“It would sure help the state if we had a hot and dry summer and irrigation came up strong,” said Cory Steinke of the Central Nebraska Public Power District.
Because so much is uncertain on the Platte, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is analyzing the flooding that could be caused by different volumes of water.
“We'll just have to wait and see,” said John Remus of the corps. “We may or may not be in danger there.”
If problems do develop as a result of snowmelt, he said, officials will have enough time as the river traverses the state to get ready in eastern Nebraska.
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