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Big ND lakes ready to take on spring melt

BISMARCK--With record-pacing snowpack and above-average snow moisture throughout much of North Dakota, Monday's announcement that the Missouri River reservoirs have been drawn down to full flood control capacity is timely news.

BISMARCK-With record-pacing snowpack and above-average snow moisture throughout much of North Dakota, Monday's announcement that the Missouri River reservoirs have been drawn down to full flood control capacity is timely news.

National Weather Service hydrologist Allen Schlag said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' annual practice of emptying excess water from reservoirs, such as Lake Sakakawea and Lake Oahe, by Feb. 1 is prudent, given how quickly conditions can change.

"We can only forecast out for 10 days, and that's not a lot of time to be prepared if there's a big change in the weather," Schlag said.

On Monday, the corps said all excess water had been evacuated by Dec. 18, 2016, making the full flood control capacity of the Missouri River system available for 2017.

"The entire flood control capacity of the mainstream reservoir system stands ready to capture spring runoff,' said Jody Farhat, chief of the Missouri River Water Management Division.

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So far this season, Bismarck has recorded more than 53 inches of snow - on par with year-to-date totals in 1996-97 and 2008-09, both flood years. Schlag said he's especially interested in learning how much moisture all that snow is holding. The National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center completed a North Dakota flyover Monday, using technology that interprets gamma ray signals to quantify the snow's moisture content.

Schlag said he estimates there's a solid 3 inches of moisture in the snow blanketing much of North Dakota. The exceptions are the far southwestern counties and the southern reaches of the James and Red River valleys.

"That 3 inches would be above normal. It's not alarming, but it gets my attention," said Schlag, adding that, even though the snowfall accumulation and moisture content adds up to a potentially big melt, it's far too early to predict anything.

"There's so much uncertainty," he said, ticking off a list of contributing factors, like additional snow and spring weather patterns.

"We need to stay aware, but I wouldn't tell anyone to panic," he said.

The North Dakota Department of Emergency Services did not respond to requests for input into this story.

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