The floods of 2019 set dozens of new records. In the north-central river forecast region, the year 2019 recorded minor flood forecasts for 96 consecutive days; moderate flood forecasts for 94 consecutive days; and major flooding forecasts for 51 consecutive days.
St. Paul, Minn., was flooded for 42 straight days, shattering a previous 33-day record. In Rock Island, Ill., the river rose higher than during the 1993 floods. The Corps of Engineers opened the Bonnet Carré Spillway twice in one year, a doleful first. More than a million acres of cropland was flooded; some of those acres have yet to dry out.
Estimates of the total costs run into the tens of billion of dollars. All but two of the 15 states through which the Missouri and Mississippi rivers flow received federal disaster declarations for storms and multiple rounds of flooding this spring. The legacy of 2019’s floods will be with us for years to come, in the form of dredging, levee repairs and restoration of farmland, other private property and ecosystems. Levee repairs along the Missouri River alone could take years.
One immediate legacy for the coming year is saturated soils. The rainfall and floods that continued through the summer and fall never gave Upper Midwest soils a change to truly dry out, so they are entering the winter already unable to hold any more moisture.
According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrologist, saturated soil is the most important of five factors that indicate a repeat of this year’s flooding in 2020. Speaking to farmers during a September webinar on flooding, hydrologist Corey Loveland called saturated soils a “priming mechanism” for future flooding.
The other factors are a high winter snowpack; ground freezing that lasts longer than usual, causing increased runoff; a rapid spring melt; and spring rains. Long-range forecasts by the NOAA suggest a wetter than normal winter across the Upper Midwest.
In the Great Lakes region, the Corps said the Great Lakes Basin saw its wettest 60-month period ending August 31 in 120 years of record-keeping. A wet October interrupted the usual autumn drop-off in water levels, and the Corps says the lakes will remain at least a foot higher than normal throughout the winter.
John Remus, chief of the Missouri River Water Management Division in Omaha, Neb., told an audience at a flood control meeting in October that conditions are right for more flooding on the Missouri River this coming spring.
The floods tested communities and responders like never before. The Corps and many local communities stretched themselves to the limit and performed heroic feats with limited resources.
The inland navigation industry also proved highly resilient. We suspect that increased vigilance, improved safety practices and close coordination between the industry, Coast Guard and Corps kept the number of high-water incidents well below what they could have been.
If extreme spring flooding becomes a new normal, it could bring changes in the conversation around river infrastructure and how river communities respond, plan and build for the future. But however the conversation changes, commercial river navigation is too important to our nation’s economy not to be a central part of it.