The James River normally looks rather unassuming in its banks as it slowly makes its way from North Dakota to the Missouri River just to the east of Yankton.
But the last few years have seen the James increasingly breaking its banks, including two massive flooding events in 2019 that have seen millions of dollars in property damage throughout the James River Valley.
Dave Bartel, project manager with the James River Water Development District (JRWDD), told the Press & Dakotan that a number of things have contributed to more frequent flooding on the river.
“It’s a combination of things from farming practices to drainage to the increased rainfall we’ve had in the last year or two,” Bartel said. “It’s just really caused it to flood.”
One major change over the years, he said, is additional land along the James River Valley being turned to agricultural uses.
“We’re farming more ground,” he said. “There was a lot of ground 5-6 years ago that probably should’ve never been broken up. It helped slow the water down getting to the Jim.”
Bartel said changing weather patterns haven’t helped the situation.
“We’ve had a weather cycle that’s been unbelievable between the snow we had a few years ago to the spring rains that really clobbered us the last couple of years,” he said. “Of course, this summer we’ve had an extreme amount of rain.”
He said that siltation — as with the Missouri River — is also making the situation more difficult.
“The river isn’t the depth it used to be,” he said. “That causes it to belly out and flood also.
“It’s one thing after another and a conglomeration of different events and different factors that have caused it.”
Bartel said it’s not just the rural areas having an impact on the river.
“A lot of talk has been done about the producers and farmers out there, but you also have to remember there’s a lot of towns and cities along the Jim River,” he said. “They have to look at how they’re releasing water into the system, too. That water runs off of concrete and asphalt and right to the rivers. That’s something that needs to be slowed down somewhat also.”
With flooding becoming more commonplace, Bartel said the JRWDD is looking at mitigation efforts that can be done throughout the James River system.
“We’re doing a lot of buffering-type CRPs (Conservation Reserve Program) to slow the water down getting to the river and slowing down the siltation which, eventually, will all help,” he said. “We’re restoring a bunch of earth dams along the James River corridor. They’re not the total answer, but they hold back some water and siltation also. Those are the things that we’re doing right now.”
Before flooding on the James River became more commonplace, the scourge of flooding in the Upper Plains largely manifested itself along the Missouri River. To combat flooding issues along the river and to help boost the power and irrigation capabilities of the region, the Pick–Sloan Missouri Basin Program was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944.
While the plan helped out the Missouri River, Bartel is unsure if a similar plan would work for the James River.
“I think it’s been discussed, but I don’t know how feasible that is,” he said. “Doing any dam work on the Jim River itself, I don’t think that’s probably ever going to fly.”
He said the key to mitigating flooding in the future is going to be getting the water slowed down as it drains towards the river.
“I think the only recourse we have is to slow the water down getting to the river to help reduce the flooding,” he said. “You look at the last few years, the emphasis has been trying to get water to the river as fast as you can by increasing culvert sizes and different things. That needs a long, hard look where we can hold that water back and release it into the river at a slower pace.”
Follow @RobNielsenPandD on Twitter.