Record snowfalls causing high waters in Great Plains

Jul 07, 2011

Summers on the Great Plains are usually characterized by a lack of water. But flooding in several states has reversed that trend -- and it might not be the last of the high waters for 2011, according to a Kansas State University geography expert.

Richard Marston, university distinguished professor and head of the department of geography, said that some mountainous states still have 200 percent of normal snowfall for this season. Spring rains have also kept the ground moist, causing subsequent runoff. This has contributed to flooding in North Dakota and along the Missouri River. More flooding also is likely along the front range of the , Marston said.

"As temperatures warm up, especially when you get warm rain on top of snow, you get a lot of runoff and melting," Marston said. "This also causes flooding in non-mountainous areas."

The Souris River, which has engulfed Minot, N.D., is similar to many other rivers in the , Marston said. The river has a low slope that slows the speed of water. This allows for an influx of water to continually accumulate.

Flood controls and related decisions have also exacerbated the extent of damage, particularly in North Dakota. are traditionally accepted as an effective method of flood control and have been implemented on a wide scale. Attempting to control rivers through building levees has eliminated adjacent wetlands, the traditional spot for during floods. It's a common issue that has had negative effects on , according to Marston.

"Back in the early 1900s, the total damages for flooding in the entire country were $100,000 per year," he said. "Now it's in the billions per-year average."

Another contributing factor has been development in floodplains. Covering a natural with concrete and asphalt, combined with the same , creates more runoff, Marston said. Many areas, including some in Manhattan, need to redo floodplain mapping to add at-risk areas.

The flooding has forced a series of tough decisions for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agency responsible for public works projects. In May floodwaters on the Mississippi River threatened the city of New Orleans. To relieve the burden on the levees around the low elevation city, the corps chose to blast a levy in rural Missouri that destroyed a small town and agricultural land. The Corps of Engineers used their system as it was designed, Marston said.

"It's a complex situation like with most human impacts on rivers," Marston said. "When we start mucking around with the connection between the river and its floodplain, things might look rosy for a period of time, but eventually you will have to pay the piper."

The flooding in North Dakota and along the Missouri River has been described by a variety of sources in the context of 100 to 500-year floods. A 100-year flood is commonly perceived as being an area that is flooded once every 100 years, Marston said. Instead, a 100-year flood means there is a 1 percent chance an area could be flooded yearly. This can cause big decisions in terms of development or future residency for areas in flood plains.

"It depends on what kind of gambler you are," Marston said. "Many times the losses from these floods are complete and devastating."

Fixing the myriad flood-related issues will involve a total effort, according to Marston. Shifting a focus from developing in floodplains and changing methods of flood controls are primary focuses, he said. Land-use planning provides an alternative to levees and dams.

"I tend to favor nonstructural approaches to flood management," Marston said. "The history of dams and levees is clear in our country. They have prevented damage from floods, but what happens when the big one occurs? The damage can be worse than it would have been without the levees."

Explore further: Massive river system buried under today's Goldfields

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Geologist decries floodplain development

Apr 01, 2008

Midwesterners have to be wondering: Will April be the cruelest month? Patterns in the Midwest this spring are eerily reminiscent of 1993 and 1994, back-to-back years of serious flooding, with the Great Flood ...

Landsat 5 captures Missouri River flooding near Omaha

Jul 06, 2011

Landsat 5 captured an image of flooding occurring along the Iowa/Nebraska border on June 30, 2011. Flooding is still occurring on July 6, and Flood Warnings are still in effect from the National Weather Service.

Mississippi diverted to revive Delta wetlands

Jun 09, 2011

Wetlands around the city of New Orleans are disappearing at such an alarming rate that a University of South Carolina coastal marine scientist predicts there will be little of the marshland left by the end of the century.

Modern physics is critical to global warming research

Mar 11, 2008

Science has come a long way with predicting climate. Increasingly sophisticated models and instruments can zero in on a specific storm formation or make detailed weather forecasts – all useful to our daily ...

Recommended for you

Damage caused by geothermal probes is rare

1 hour ago

Soil settlements or upheavals and resulting cracks in monuments, floodings, or dried-up wells: Reports about damage caused by geothermal probes have made the population feel insecure. In fact, the probability ...

Extreme shrimp may hold clues to alien life

3 hours ago

(Phys.org) —At one of the world's deepest undersea hydrothermal vents, tiny shrimp are piled on top of each other, layer upon layer, crawling on rock chimneys that spew hot water. Bacteria, inside the shrimps' ...

Erosion may trigger earthquakes

Nov 21, 2014

Researchers from laboratories at Géosciences Rennes (CNRS/Université de Rennes 1), Géosciences Montpellier (CNRS/Université de Montpellier 2) and Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris (CNRS/IPGP/Université Paris Diderot), ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.