2019 FLOODING

Luke Thomas and Air Force Tech Sgt. Vanessa Vidaurre at a flooded portion of Offutt Air Force Base. In March, historic flooding included breaches of two levees protecting the base from the Missouri River.

There’s no good news in the forecast for precipitation and water levels along the Missouri River.

Rivers continue to run high, soils remain saturated, reservoirs are overfull and the latest long-term outlook favors wetter-than-normal weather into the fall, federal officials said Thursday during a monthly update on conditions in the Missouri River watershed.

And while progress is being made repairing the shattered levee system, levees will be nowhere near back to whole by next spring’s flood season.

The bottom line: In terms of flood risk, the region is heading into winter in worse shape than was the case last fall.

“Truthfully, it will surprise me if we don’t flood,” said Mike Crecelius, emergency management coordinator for Fremont County, Iowa, where flooding has been a problem since March, when a torrent of rain and snowmelt flushed into the Missouri River watershed. “We could very well be fighting this same battle next spring.”

The upper Missouri River is home to the continent’s largest reservoir system — six massive dams.

Because of successive months of wet weather, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water from those reservoirs downstream into the river at a rate of 70,000 cubic feet per second, twice what is normal. The reservoirs empty into the Missouri River north of Sioux City, Iowa, at Gavins Point Dam.

The corps hopes to begin stepping down releases by sometime in October, but if wetter-than-normal weather continues, it’s possible releases could remain at 70,000 cfs through November, corps officials said Thursday.

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The Lower 48 states are in the midst of their wettest year on record.

In wide swaths of the sprawling basin, rainy weather is possible over the next two weeks, according to Kevin Low, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service. While that isn’t expected to spark new flooding, it will contribute to the already saturated conditions.

Why the projection for a wetter-than-normal fall? One of the reasons is the warmer-than-normal water in the subtropical Pacific Ocean, said Doug Kluck, central region climate services director for the weather service. That said, long-term forecasts for this part of the country are especially difficult.

Federal scientists are studying the unrelenting wet weather, Kluck said, and the results of their work should be available next year.

“It’s pretty incredible,” he said of the storm track that has taken hold across the U.S.

Kluck said the corps and weather service will be conferring this fall and into the winter over weather projections. The first official flood forecast for next year comes out in February and is issued by the weather service.

Kevin Stamm, senior hydrologic engineer for the corps’ Missouri River office, presented sobering numbers on August runoff during Thursday’s briefing:

  • Runoff in the upper Missouri River basin was 250% of normal.
  • Water pouring into the reservoirs behind the six dams ranged from three times normal at Gavins Point to 10 times normal at Fort Randall Dam.
  • Gavins Point and Fort Randall saw their wettest August on record.

The corps continues to make progress on closing breaches in levees and awarding contracts for future work. The Omaha district of the corps has closed 11 breaches, with 22 remaining, according to Matt Krajewski, readiness branch chief for the Omaha district. The agency hopes to award a construction contract for the Ditch 6 levee in Hamburg, Iowa, in mid-September, he said.