“We’ve never seen it like this.” That’s been the common response as farmers and ranchers throughout the Tri-State territory cope with mid-March blizzards, soaking rains and record floods.
Many farmers have given up the idea of an early planting season because their fields are under water. Ranchers are weary from hauling hay through snow storms and tending to calves through bitter cold nights.
Still, as producers in the northern plains work through the last throes of winter, most are hopeful that all will work out in the end. They remain especially steadfast as they watch neighbors in Iowa and Nebraska have their livelihoods washed away by massive floods.
Residents in the town of Renner, north of Sioux Falls, were sandbagging around buildings on the first day of spring. They were preparing for the snow melt that was predicted to come down the Big Sioux River as temperatures reached 50 degrees. There was still snow cover, feet thick, across the state’s northeastern corner.
It would be Round 2 for the town of Renner. The Big Sioux flooded the week before when a storm brought heavy rains March 13 and 14.
Laurel and Mike Turner keep horses on the edge of Renner. Silver Creek runs by their horse pasture, and heavy rains created a roaring waterfall as water crossed their driveway and headed toward the creek. It didn’t last long, but the water feature was something they had never seen in their 31 years living there.
“That was a big shock,” Laurel Turner said.
They grow alfalfa for their horses, and the field was completely under water. Mike Turner was hopeful that the hearty crop would survive because it would be in its dormant stage until mid May.
“Hopefully by that time, everything will soak in and it will be back to normal,” he said.
Officials were urging eastern South Dakota residents to prepare for the worst, as the April forecast from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration calls for rain on top of warmer temperatures helping to melt snow.
“This is not the outlook that many wanted to hear,” state climatologist Laura Edwards said in a news release. “The risk of major flooding is not over. Now is the time to act."
An update from SDSU Extension
Hydrologists and emergency managers strongly recommend the state’s residents take flood preparation seriously. The state has activated its Emergency Operations Center in Pierre, with state and federal agencies in close communication.
The flood risk is not isolated to eastern South Dakota. The White River is already in moderate-to-major flood stage. Anticipated snow runoff is predicted to impact the Grand and Moreau Rivers similar to the upper James and Big Sioux Rivers.
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Edwards encourages South Dakotans to follow the National Weather Service for the most up-to-date weather and river forecasts and check out the SDSU Extension website where staff are posting daily updates to the site’s Flood Page, at extension.sdstate.edu.
Across the state, Edwards said snowpack is above average for this time of year, resulting in increased potential for more flooding.
“Moderate to major flooding was already predicted to occur this spring for many of the state’s rivers. And, with much of the northern areas still waiting on their snow to melt, and a forecast of wetter than average conditions, South Dakota could experience accelerated snowmelt that will potentially increase runoff into rivers,” she said.
Although warmer, more seasonal temperatures moved into the area the week of March 18, Edwards said the outlook predicts cooler temperatures to return at the end of March and into the first part of April.
For many of the state’s farmers, this is unwelcome news.
“Cool and wet conditions will slow down spring planting, as the soil will be slow to dry after recent flooding,” Edwards said.
Resulting muddy conditions are also a concern for livestock producers. “Mud will continue to be a concern,” Edwards said. “The soil will also be slow to warm in preparation for planting.”
As of March 21, frost depths are close to 2-feet in southeastern South Dakota and as much as 4- to 5-feet in the north.
“Farmers may need to work quickly when conditions improve to plant their spring crops such as spring wheat, corn and soybeans,” Edwards said.
The NOAA National Weather Service predicts snowmelt will cause rivers to crest the week of March 25 through the first weeks of April.
“The estimate peak and timing are due solely to snowmelt,” Edwards explained.
There is an estimated 2 to 4 inches of water in the snow pack in north central and northeastern South Dakota. “If there is any significant rain, that will change the timing and peak flow through these rivers,” she said.
As of March 22, Edwards said the forecast month-end crest along the Big Sioux from Brookings and southward, and the lower James River, may rank among the top five highest historically.
River levels could be close to past peaks in 1993, 2010, 1984 and even record levels in some reaches of those rivers.