As bad as 2020 has been so far, let’s use this space today to acknowledge one of the biggest stories that, generally, HASN’T happened this year (at least not yet).
That refers to the massive flooding that was widely anticipated and feared for the region this year. Given the two rounds of flooding the Yankton area endured in 2019 and the saturation level of the ground heading into the winter, the general consensus was that flood problems were going to persist again, perhaps even more so, in the upper Missouri River basin, and particularly along the James River valley.
But to date, that basically hasn’t happened.
Granted, the James River valley is enduring flooding again and thousands of acres are once more underwater or turned to mud. That was to be expected because the river literally froze out of its banks last fall. Heavy snowfall in northeast South Dakota this past winter seemed to be an ominous extra ingredient, but much of that snow melted in a timely, steady fashion and didn’t create the great surge that many people feared. The valley is still a mess, but it isn’t anywhere near as bad as it was last September after the flash storm in the Mitchell area caused the river to devour highways throughout Yankton and Hutchinson counties.
Overall, however, the runoff and melt threats that were dreaded a few months ago have been managed, thanks to a drier-than-normal winter in parts of the region.
Last Thursday, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adjusted its 2020 runoff forecast for the upper reservoir downward. While the runoff above Sioux City, Iowa, is still expected to be about 125% of normal, it doesn’t appear at this time to be as bad as it initially appeared. One result was that the discharges at Gavins Point Dam were lowered to 33,000 cubic feet per second — a modest drop, but below where they were probably anticipated and far, FAR below where they were a year ago in the wake of the bomb cyclone. This will also allow points south of Sioux City to continue repair work on levees and, hopefully, avoid a repeat performance of last year’s destructive onslaught.
The conditions that have allowed the reservoir to catch up on water storage are also producing much better conditions for farmers, who are already getting into fields to plant crops.
Thus, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, we may well be talking a lot about the flooding that hasn’t happened so far.
There are a lot of caveats here, of course. There is still a lot of sub-soil moisture in eastern South Dakota, which is going to slow some field work and will continue to serve as an ingredient for danger should any major storms track across the upper plains. Things could still turn on a dime like they did in 2018, when the area was mostly dry until it started raining in June and never really stopped. Mother Nature is always unpredictable, and she holds all the cards.
But at least the threat of massive flooding we feared for the spring has so far failed to materialize. So, as bad as this year has been, we can count that as one big break that has gone our way.