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Conditions ripe for repeat of spring flooding in Nebraska, experts say
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Conditions ripe for repeat of spring flooding in Nebraska, experts say


Conditions are ripe for a repeat of last spring's severe flooding.

That's the assessment of state climate experts who spoke to the Nebraska Climate Assessment Response Committee on Wednesday during its fall meeting.

Nebraska saw its third-wettest January-October period on record this year, and much of that moisture is still in rivers, reservoirs and in the ground.

As of Wednesday, much of the soil in central and eastern Nebraska held more than 30% water all the way down to 40 inches underground, according to the Nebraska State Climate Office, which is well above average.

"That's a very, very wet soil profile," said State Climatologist Martha Shulski.

As of this week, Lake McConaughy is at 88% capacity, up from 80% a year ago, and Harlan County Reservoir is at 100%, with a recent reading of 405,000 acre-feet of water in storage, nearly double its historical average of 208,000.

An even bigger concern might be the Missouri River, which remains above flood stage.

While many areas in Nebraska that feed into the Missouri River have seen and continue to see above-average precipitation, conditions are worse farther north.

Many portions of the Dakotas have seen record amounts of rain this year, with most areas receiving 150% to 200% of normal rainfall, said Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center.

Maps show that groundwater levels in Nebraska and most of the upper Midwest are in the 98th percentile or higher based on historical totals.

"There has been a lot of water through the Plains and Midwest this year," Fuchs said.

That water, eventually, will flow into the Missouri River basin, he said.

Whether the state sees anything close to the devastation that occurred in March, which included more than $1 billion in damage, numerous roads and bridges washed out and at least three deaths, will depend largely on what happens this winter.

The early cold snap that gave the state its fifth-coldest October on record and has continued into this month hasn't helped, because it means more water in rivers will freeze, which can lead to ice jams and flooding when it thaws.

The National Weather Service has already started warning about the potential for spring flooding across the Midwest, saying that widespread ice jams are likely, even on rivers that don't normally experience them.

Shulski said it's telling that the weather service is warning about spring flooding before winter even starts.

"It's not often that we're already thinking about a growing flood season in November," she said.

The weather service said high river levels and high moisture levels going into winter are two existing conditions that could increase the chances of flooding in the spring.

Others that would increase the risk even further include above-average winter precipitation, a bigger snowpack to feed area rivers and above-normal spring precipitation.

The weather service's December-February forecast hints at above-average precipitation over Nebraska and the Missouri River basin.

Fuchs, of the Drought Mitigation Center, said it may all come down to what happens over the next three or four months.

"This winter season's going to be important to see if we're going to be under the gun again in terms of widespread flooding," he said.

Photos, videos from this year's flooding in Nebraska

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Business 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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