Widespread Drought Lowers Flood Threat In Missouri River Basin

Mar 18, 2021

Hydrologists predict an average flood risk in much of the Missouri River Basin this spring. Dry conditions that started last summer are playing a big part in lowering the flood risk.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts no major flooding across the country for the first time in three years. Mary Erickson, the deputy director of the National Weather Service, said minor to moderate flooding is still likely in “limited areas” this spring.

“In recent years, much of the nation has experienced widespread, historic flooding,” said Erickson during a briefing with reporters Thursday. “In fact, just last year, more than 128 million people were at risk for flooding in their communities. This year, it is a different story. NOAA hydrologists do not predict major river flooding for the first time since 2018.”

That’s good news, but there’s bad news: prolonged and widespread drought. Much of the Missouri River Basin is experiencing moderate to severe drought with some pockets of extreme drought.

Brian Fuchs, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center, says soils in the basin are dry and have a room to take in water from rain and melting snow, which lowers the flood risk.

“Think of them as a big sponge. That when they are dry, and there’s room in that profile for moisture to get in, any type of rain that hits them is going to get soaked in,” Fuchs said.

But Fuchs says if those soils aren’t replenished, plants aren’t going to have enough moisture deep enough in the soil that they can tap into to grow.

“So it’s kind of a balancing game of getting that moisture into the soil so plants can utilize it if it does get dry and drought starts developing,” Fuchs said. “And if you don’t have that, what you end up seeing is the impact of that drought really taking off more so in a hurry than if that moisture was there.”

Fuchs says he expects the drought to persist in the High Plains through June. He added areas in the plains and the South that are abnormally dry could see drought develop. Consistent rainfall could ease the impacts of the drought, Fuchs said.

“Any moisture that we can get into that soil profile between now and when planting starts later on in the spring, typically in May, we will have some of that moisture banked for later on in the production cycle,” Fuchs said.