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The National Weather Service's Omaha office makes a handful of changes to flood stage levels every year on Nebraska rivers and creeks based on how the bodies of water react to flooding events.

David Pearson, service hydrologist, said that since his tenure with the Weather Service started in 2010, the yearly average has been about five, with a high of 15 in 2011, a year of significant flooding.

Flooding this March across much of the state was worse than the floods in 2011, and that will likely necessitate an unprecedented number of proposed changes to flood stages.

Pearson has already recommended 19 changes to moderate and major flood stage levels on several rivers and creeks in eastern Nebraska, including the Platte, Elkhorn and Niobrara rivers, which saw some of the worst flooding.

Most of those changes, set to take effect Sept. 16, involve lowering the level at which a flood would be declared.

Pearson said the March floods, which inundated much of the eastern part of the state and caused more than $1 billion in damage, came on so fast and were so destructive that they showed many of the flood stage levels were out of date.

"Unfortunately, it was an opportunity to see what happens when a river gets very high," Pearson said. "It's hard to know what happens until it happens."

In many places, what happened had never happened before.

For example, one of the places where flood stage is being reduced is the Platte River near Ashland. Currently, major flood stage is 26 feet, but Pearson has proposed lowering it to 23.5 feet.

The river crested there March 16 at its highest level ever recorded: 24.35 feet.

That was enough to flood the Nebraska National Guard's Camp Ashland and cause problems with well fields that provide drinking water to Lincoln residents.

Pearson said what happened with the Platte near Ashland was a "weird case."

"Levees overtopped at levels where people thought there was more room," he said.

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Now, with the proposed change in major flood stage at that location, Pearson said "when it hits 23.5 feet, alarm bells should start to go off."

Pearson also has proposed another change near Ashland: lowering the moderate flood stage level on Salt Creek from 23 feet to 21 feet. The creek also hit its highest-ever level during the March flooding, 22.1 feet.

Both of those bodies of water are in the Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, which is in favor of the changes.

"While these changes would not have an effect on our operations, we support them," said Mike Mascoe, a spokesman for the NRD.

"Better information is always good," Mascoe said, noting that the flood stage levels help landowners, municipalities and others know the severity of flooding that is expected or that actually occurs.

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The Weather Service's flood stage levels don't carry any weight behind them, but they do determine when the agency issues advisories and warnings, and they also inform state and local agencies about what, if any, measures to take, such as ordering evacuations.

"The numbers become part of the emergency decisions for a flood," Pearson said.

Those looking to give input on the proposed changes can see them at the website for the Weather Service's Omaha office: weather.gov/oax/flood stage changes.

Pearson said he has received virtually no feedback on the proposed changes, although they have not been publicized beyond being posted on the website.

The changes set to take effect this month won't be the only ones. Pearson said he's also planning to adjust flood stage levels on the Missouri River but is waiting for levels to go down. The river is still at minor flood stage at Nebraska City and points south and is still near flood stage in the Omaha area.

That could take a while, so Pearson said he hopes to have those proposed changes in place by Feb. 1.

Photos, videos from March flooding

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2647 or molberding@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LincolnBizBuzz.

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Business editor/reporter

Matt Olberding is a Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been covering business for the Journal Star since 2005.

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