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Nature Nut: Flooding this year could be ‘epic’

March 18, 2019

After snow-raking a neighbor’s roof in knee-deep snow last week, I couldn’t help but think back to April 1965. I was a sophomore at John Marshall High School and remember being told by football coach John Drews we were going to take a bus to Winona — but not to play football. I’m not sure it was an optional trip, although hope I would have volunteered anyway if it wasn’t.

We were there to help sandbag during what would be the one of the biggest floods ever recorded on the upper Mississippi River. I’ve gotten an idea how high it must have been looking at marks in the basement wall of my little Duck Shack on the Mississippi backwaters. There I can see marks from a handful of years — the highest, 2001, which was about 4 feet above basement floor level. Even though for some reason there was no mark for the ’65 flood, neighbors told me it was the highest they had seen. I assumed it had been well up the basement wall.

Although my memory may not serve me well, I can’t remember a winter quite like this. However, talking with 94-year-old friend Jerry Valfer, he indicated 1962 was worse, and I know he has an excellent memory, so I believe him.

However, I am pretty sure I have never seen snow piled up like it has been along streets and roads, as well as on roofs of houses, schools, and other buildings. And I am certain I don’t recall ever seeing so many ice formations on building roof edges, including some 9- to 10-foot icicles. Neither do I recall so many schools closing for low temps, snowfall, and even roof snow.

Unlike this year, there are many years in late February and early March when we get warm days and cool evenings, causing the sap to flow for maple syrup gatherers. And there are usually April rainstorms that could add “water to the pot” if we get some this year.

While the rains and above-freezing temps of earlier this week might lead to some local flooding, there are still billions of tons of snow to melt up north, with most of it heading our way via the Mississippi. Friend Sue Schreurs, who has seen many floods from her Mississippi cabin over the past half century, feels this one could be “epic.”

So, in my mind, an almost perfect storm is in place that may lead to major flooding, minus one factor. First are the record amounts of snow we have had, especially in February and now more in March. And we have not had any significant thaws to remove much of the snow, so basically almost all the snow that has fallen this winter is still around.

The one factor missing for flooding is that by the time extreme cold came, the ground was well covered in snow, and thus the frost has not been driven as deep as it might have been without snow cover. However, with soil well saturated this past fall, even once the frost is out, the ground may not be able to absorb much water, thus leading to greater runoff into rivers and streams.

Fortunately Rochester is pretty well protected from flooding with reservoirs and channel work done after the ’78 flood. But much of the rest of Minnesota and broader Midwest are not so well protected. Even both sides of the aisle in the state Legislature quickly passed the addition of $10 million into the emergency fund.

So, while many of us are predicting flooding, it creates a bit of a dilemma for me, as I certainly hate to see people who live in flood-prone areas deal with high water. But, at the same time, I also like to see reminders from nature that she is still calling the shots.

And if she does flex her muscles, it may produce higher water levels than even those of the ’65 flood.

Either way, none of us has any control over what will happen, but I encourage those who are exposed to high water levels to take whatever precautions you can this spring.