Officials who manage the Pipestem and Jamestown reservoirs and river flows in the area are dealing with a completely different set of circumstances this year compared to the past decade, according to Jessica Batterman, hydraulic engineer with the Omaha division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"It flipped a 180 (degrees)," she said. "Interestingly, the last two years have been in the top 10 of water flow down the James River. We went from that to drought conditions."
Batterman said this year is predicted to be a "low flow" year on the James River which by definition means the river flow never exceeding 200 cubic feet per second. Currently, the combined releases of the Jamestown and Pipestem dams are 10 cfs. The 10 cfs is being released from the bottom of Pipestem Dam to improve water quality in the reservoir. Currently, the reservoir behind Pipestem Dam is approximately 30 feet below the level seen just last spring.
All snow in the region has already melted and mostly soaked into the ground.
"It is possible the Jamestown Dam will not fill to flood control level," Batterman said. "Right now we're below flood control level at both reservoirs."
The flood control level is about 1,431 feet above sea level for Jamestown Dam and is considered the normal reservoir level during the summer with any water above that level being held and gradually released to prevent downstream flooding.
Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck, said the dry conditions started last year.
"Last year we had a meteorological drought with less precipitation," he said, "but we had a lot of moisture stored in the soil from 2019 so it was not noticeable."
Precipitation in 2020 amounted to 13.75 inches which was down about 6 inches from recent averages, according to statistics from weather observers at the North Dakota State Hospital.
The dry conditions have continued into the spring of 2021.
"Now, pretty quickly we are seeing an agricultural drought," he said.
Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager and 911 coordinator, said it could result in a stagnant James River this summer.
"We probably haven't had a dried-up river since 1992," he said.
Schlag said releases from Jamestown and Pipestem dams could be used to provide downstream irrigation water or to prevent a fish kill on the river which could be possible in a drought year.
The lower reservoir levels could also reduce fish reproduction, according to Mike Johnson, fisheries biologist for the southeast region for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.
"In the spring when the water rises it floods areas of vegetation," he said. "That is used by the fish to spawn and growing the young of this year. ... that will be a struggle this year."
Problems spawning this year would reduce the number of game fish for fishermen in future years but could also reduce the numbers of minnows and other forage fish that the game fish feed on.
"Some lakes may have some access issues putting boats in if the water levels get too low," Johnson said.
Schlag said lake levels could continue to drop throughout the summer.
"People will be seeing parts of the shoreline we haven't seen for a long time," he said.
And those conditions are likely to continue, Schlag said.
"There is pretty much zero optimism this will turn around anytime soon," he said.