Flood outlook a 'yawner' for James River basin

Look at the preliminary hydrological outlook for the James River basin from the National Weather Service.

James River Feb. 11, 2020
Dry soil conditions and a lack of snow pack could reduce runoff this spring resulting in flows on the James River much below flood levels such as seen here this past spring. John M. Steiner / The Sun

The early flood outlook for the James River Basin might be considered "dry reading," according to Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck.

"It is a big yawner," he said. "Coming into winter we had a very benign December and now that is extending into January."

His official report, dated Tuesday, Dec. 29, blamed "a lack of significant snow pack, dry soils and a lack of large storm events in the near term forecast" for an extremely low probability of any sort of flood event on the James River and Pipestem Creek.

Statistically, there is less than a 5% chance of any reporting station on the two streams reaching even minor flood stage. The forecast gives a 50% chance of a crest of 4.9 feet for the Pipestem at Pingree and a crest of 7.1 feet at the James River at LaMoure.


Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager and 911 coordinator, said that is roughly the level of those streams now.

"That's not surprising," he said. "What's left of the winter and spring could make a difference but we are in a good position right now."

Bergquist does have a water-related concern about this spring and summer in Stutsman County.

"Potentially, we could have a tough time for the Jamestown Reservoir to reach its summer recreational level," he said.

The level at the Jamestown Reservoir is currently 1,429.8 feet above mean seal level. The summer goal for the reservoir is 1,431 feet above mean sea level. There is no defined summer recreational level for the waters behind Pipestem Dam.

Additional snow through the winter and even spring rains are not expected to increase the spring flood forecast, Schlag said.

"The soils are cold but there is no moisture," he said referring to the frost depth in the ground. "We have a lot of capacity for melting snow and spring rains."

If conditions don't change, there could be little runoff into the streams and dams in the area, Schlag said.


"But the reality is the amount of water it takes to fill the reservoirs to normal levels is not much compared to a normal spring melt," he said. "All it takes is one big haymaker of a Colorado storm dumping 18 inches of wet snow across the state."

In the meantime, officials continue to monitor conditions snow and ground conditions. The National Weather Service will issue an updated spring flood outlook in February.

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