Highway 81 Closed Down

The James River, rolling out of its banks after massive rainfall to the north earlier this week, surged across Yankton County Friday, closing roads at or near four bridges that crossed the river. This photo was taken moments before the road was closed down to traffic. 

Rapidly-rising floodwaters have forced the closure of U.S. Highway 81 — an international highway — north of Yankton until further notice.

The South Dakota Department of Transportation (SDDOT) took the action Friday afternoon. The James River flowed out of its banks, covering a portion of the highway about 12 miles north of Yankton. At that point, SDDOT officials considered the road unsafe for further travel.

The Highway 81 closure is just one of many throughout southeast South Dakota. This week’s continuous major rainfall, which dumped several inches of rainfall in 48 hours, has caused the James, Vermillion and Big Sioux rivers to roar out of their banks.

On Thursday, Yankton County Emergency Manager Paul Scherschligt alerted the public to the anticipated flood activity. On Friday, he announced the need for quick action as rapid flooding had begun, particularly with the James River.

“Due to recent rains, many of the rivers in our area are starting to rise again,” he said. “This is causing spots of lowland flooding and water over several area roads.”

Highway 81 was closed to traffic north of Yankton around 2:45 p.m. Friday. That stretch of highway had not been closed since the James River crossing was upgraded more than 15 years ago.

Meanwhile, the SDDOT closed a section of Highway 46 north of Yankton at noon Friday, according to Rod Gall, the Yankton area engineer for the SDDOT. The highway was closed where the James River crosses the road about 15 miles west of Highway 81.

In addition, two other stretches of road west of Highway 81 have been closed because of flooding. Those segments are part of U.S. Highway 18 near Olivet and South Dakota Highway 44 between Parkston and Freeman. Both sites are located in Hutchinson County.

They will remain closed until further notice.


The flooding has also affected Yankton County roads and bridges, according to Highway Superintendent Mike Sedlacek. Numerous other roadways in the region have been closed as the James River continues to rise.

Sedlacek informed the Press & Dakotan early Friday evening of concerns with Johnson Bridge, one of four James River bridges in Yankton County.

“We’ll be closing Johnson Bridge really shortly. I don’t know if water will go over the road or the bridge, but water is getting into the girders,” he said. “Talking to Clark Engineering, they recommend closing the bridges when water gets in the girders like that. We’re doing it as a safety precaution.”

In addition, the Yankton County highway department was monitoring Fleeg’s Bridge, a James River bridge northeast of Yankton, Sedlacek said.

“We have three of our four James River bridges now closed. We’ve closed the Stone Church, Jamesville and Johnson bridges,” he said. “The only ways left to cross the Jim River in Yankton County are the Old Highway 50 — or Fleeg’s — Bridge, or over Highway 50.”

The county’s infrastructure already sustained major damage from the March flooding, Sedlacek said. Now, the highway department will need to assess the continued or newest round of damage.

“We’re talking with Clark Engineering as soon as the water recedes,” he said. “All of our bridges will have to be re-inspected for any damage.”

In addition to the bridges, Sedlacek is keeping an eye on flooded roads. As of 3:15 p.m. Friday, the following roads in Yankton County were covered with water:

• 431th Avenue between Northwest Jim River Road and Stone Church Road

• Stone Church Road between 431st Ave. and 436th  Ave.

• 436th Ave between Northwest Jim River Rd and 295th Street

• S.D. Highway 46 at the James River

• Northeast Jim River Road at S.D. Highway 46 and S.D. Highway 81

• U.S. Highway 81 at the James River

• Southwest Jim River Road between U.S. Highway 81 and 303rd Street

• Northeast Jim River Road between U.S. Hwy 81 and 303rd Avenue

Scherschligt urged travelers to respect submerged roads along with “road closed” signs or barricades.

“Roads are closed at the bridge closing or water over a gravel road along the river. Please do not attempt to cross through the waters on these roads or go around barriers.  These are in place for your safety,” he said.

“This water is fast moving, so please use caution. If you live along a river, please take a moment to make a plan for evacuation for your family should it become necessary to evacuate quickly.  In addition, a sandbag station is up and running at the Yankton County Highway Department at 3302 West City Limits Road.”

The NWS has issued a flood warning until further notice for the James River at Huron, Forestburg, Mitchell, Scotland and Yankton.

Mitchell was one of this week’s hardest hit areas in eastern South Dakota, receiving up to 10 inches of rainfall in the span of about 36 hours. With the ground already saturated from a wet year, the latest rainfall will likely find its way south to Yankton.

At 8 a.m. Friday, the James River stage at Scotland stood at 21.05 feet, compared to the flood stage of 13 feet. Record flooding is occurring, and record flooding is forecast.

The river is predicted to crest near 21.8 feet today (Saturday). At stages near 22.0 feet, water reaches the bottom of the bridge on Highway 18 near Olivet.

At 9 a.m. Friday, the James River at Yankton was at 20.89 feet compared to flood stage of 12 feet. The river is forecast to crest near 23.7 feet by Sunday and then begin falling. Major flooding is occurring, and major flooding is forecast.


In response to the high runoff in the Missouri River basin, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has temporarily reduced the Gavins Point Dam releases. In turn, the Corps will adjust releases elsewhere in the system of six dams on the upper basin.

“The Missouri River Basin Water Management Division continues to monitor the conditions on the ground and we will make adjustments as necessary,” John Remus, chief of the Corps’ Missouri River Basin Water Management Division.

The Corps will make the short-term adjustment this weekend, Remus said. The current releases of 70,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) — twice the normal flow for this time of year — will be reduced by 5,000 cfs both today and Sunday.

Current models suggest lowering releases from Gavins Point Dam may lower the peak flood stage forecast on the Missouri River between Sioux City, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska.

“We are reducing releases from Gavins Point Dam to try to reduce the chances of flood water reaching Interstate 29 north of Omaha,” Remus said.

The releases of 60,000 cfs from Gavins Point Dam will last no longer than three days, the Corps said. Then, releases will be increased 5,000 cfs a day until reaching 80,000 cfs.

According to the National Weather Service (NWS), rainfall during first two weeks of September has brought between 200 and 600% of normal rainfall over the entire Missouri River Basin. The NWS has issued river several river flood alerts and warnings.

The increased releases are aimed at ensuring the 16.3 million acre-feet (MAF) of designated flood control storage will be available before the 2020 runoff season.

“We have already seen four times the normal precipitation for September over the entire upper Missouri River basin,” Remus said.

As of Sept. 13, runoff in the upper Missouri River Basin above Sioux City, Iowa, had reached 49.9 MAF, surpassing the 1997 runoff of 49.0 MAF — and making 2019 the second highest runoff in the 121-year record.  Only the 2011 runoff of 61.0 MAF is higher.

Since Sept. 1, runoff into the Big Bend, Fort Randall and Gavins Point reservoirs, as well as the unregulated James, Vermillion and Big Sioux rivers, have received 3-8 inches of rainfall.

Over the same two-week period, all of North Dakota received between 2-8 inches of rain.


For more information on Yankton County flooding, contact the Office of Emergency Management at (605) 668-5289. Also, follow on Facebook or on Twitter @YanktonCoEM.

Daily Missouri River Basin reservoir updates are available at https://go.usa.gov/xVQ74.

Follow @RDockendorf on Twitter.

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