Minnesota got as wet as it could get this year.
And that could spell trouble for river towns once the state’s frozen landscape thaws next spring.
“It would be a really good year to get flood insurance and get it early,” said Craig Schmidt, service hydrologist with the National Weather Service (NWS) in Chanhassen.
It appears 2019 will wind up being the wettest year on record in Minnesota, busting the record set in 1977, said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist in the State Climate Office. Although the entire state was significantly wetter than normal, the southern half was the soggiest with at least a dozen areas setting individual records, he said. By mid-December, Rochester had recorded 54.28 inches of precipitation — 10 inches more than the record set in 1990. And by mid-December, Minneapolis-St. Paul inched above the 2016 record of 40.32 inches.
The wet conditions forced many farmers to plant later than usual, said Dave Nicolai, University of Minnesota Extension educator for crops. “Some never got their crops in the ground,” he said. “To be most successful, you like to plant starting in April, and then have a good fall.”
But a wet fall kept many farmers out of their fields, forcing the harvest into late November and December, he said.
“A lot of sugar beets never got harvested at all,” Nicolai added. “It was devastating. Every grower in this state wants to forget 2019.”
Come spring, however, reminders of the record-setting precipitation could bubble up. The ground already is saturated and rivers are higher than normal for this time of year, which could make the risk of spring flooding higher than last year, Schmidt said. Still, he and his colleague, Grand Forks NWS hydrologist Amanda Lee, agree it’s too early to predict.
“We don’t know how much snow we’re going to get this winter or how much water is going to be in that snow,” Lee said. It also will depend how deep the frost goes this winter and how quickly spring warms up. The deeper the frost, the slower it thaws, leaving rain to pool or run off rather than soak in, she explained.
“There’s a lot of winter left and all of spring to go,” Lee said. “It’s too early to start sounding alarms.”
As last winter faded, forecasters predicted a higher-than-usual chance of moderate to major flooding after a record February snowfall and frigid winter temperatures kept Minnesota blanketed in a deep snowpack at the start of March. But last year’s gradual melt along with a dry period reduced the amount of expected flooding, Schmidt said.
“We still had a bad flood year, but it could have been so much worse,” he said.
While the flood risk for most of Minnesota is months away, some residents living along the Otter Tail River near Fergus Falls have already had to battle rising waters.
“Where we live the river snakes,” said Maurice Skogen, a retired engineer. “There’s a lot of erosion along the 30- to 40-foot banks.”
Large trees fall into the river and clog it up, he said. Frazil ice forms under water on the trees, moves up to the surface and “pretty soon you have a dam and the water backs up in the valley,” Skogen said.
Skogen’s backyard became a frozen lake as the river spilled over its banks and moved closer to his house. Some homeowners used sandbags to keep the water at bay. Skogen’s sump pumps “cranked water out like crazy.” A few houses were almost lost in the winter of 2010 when the river dammed up and pushed over its banks, Skogen said.
“It’s a perfect storm this winter for it to unfold,” he said. “All the lakes and rivers are swollen. Anything can go wrong this time of year when this freezes up.”