Reservoirs Ready - But Can They Be Lower? - - Bismarck/Minot/Williston/Dickinson-KXNEWS,ND

Reservoirs Ready - But Can They Be Lower?

Reservoirs Ready - But Can They Be Lower?

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A very wet 2013 has some people worried about the prospects for flooding this spring in north-central North Dakota.


The water-logged soil and rainy fall led to some significant water flows along the Mouse River this winter.

Jim Olson reports on how the dams and reservoirs that provide critical flood control are shaping up as spring gets closer.

Three dams in Canada - Rafferty, Alameda, and Boundary, control the amount of water that enters North Dakota from Saskatchewan west of Sherwood. In the U.S., one dam provides flood control - Lake Darling Dam northwest of Minot. Among them, the dams and reservoirs they create are designed to keep a lid on the spring runoff of snow melt. Of course, in 2011, the system was overwhelmed by a big snow melt that filled reservoirs which were not drained before mid-June rains in Canada forced the opening of gates at dams - one of which was said to be in danger of collapse - and the Mouse River rampaged to its worst flooding on record. The international agreement that regulates the operation of the river system is under review for possible changes to address what went wrong in 2011. In the meantime, that agreement continues to dictate how the dams and reservoirs are operated. And as we enter the spring of 2014, the reservoirs are right where they're supposed to be.

The 1989 International Operations Manual requires these levels for the three main reservoirs by February First: Rafferty - the largest storage area - must be at 549.5 meters, Alameda to the east controls inflow to the Souris from Moose Mountain Creek and must be at 561 meters, and Lake Darling must be at 1596 feet.

And as of today, that's exactly where those three reservoirs sit. Each one is within inches of the required February First level. But Minot's mayor wonders if water managers shouldn't just keep water flowing in the Mouse and drop the reservoir levels lower.

(Curt Zimbelman, Minot Mayor) "We're very saturated, our soil's very saturated and that's the way we'll go into spring and if we're not fortunate like we were last year with the freezing and thawing and that long spring we had to get through it, I'm concerned. We always have those concerns and we know through common sense that it'd be nice to have a bit more room in those facilities."

Last spring, Zimbelman won his battle to have the level of Lake Darling lowered a foot below its prescribed level. That came in late March after several weeks of very wet weather pushed potential runoff levels very high.

(Curt Zimbelman, Minot Mayor) "You think that little trickle that's going through the river valley now, I mean, why not? Why not just let it trickle away and have a bit more room available but our hands are kind of tied."

For now, releases both from Canadian dams and from Lake Darling have been cut back from where they were all winter. For most of the late fall and winter, Lake Darling Dam discharged 300 cubic feet per second of water - four times more than the pervious winter and the highest winter releases ever. But now, with the lake at its required February First level, the releases have been curtailed.

In less than one month, members of the International Souris River Board - the group in charge of management of the river - will meet to assess the snowpack and expected runoff. If they decide the amount of water poised to run into the river is among the top 10% of historic runoff totals, they'll declare it a "one in ten" year and move into flood prevention operations with the US Army Corps of Engineers taking over management duties south of the border, and, perhaps, bringing the reservoir levels down. If not, the system will be operated as normal with an eye toward bringing the reservoirs to their normal summertime levels by the time the snow melt ends.

Jim Olson, KX News.

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