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Last updated 11:38PM ET
June 23, 2018
Nebraska News
Nebraska News
Nebraska floods: A forecast, and a sunken opportunity
(NET Radio) - This year's winter has been almost shockingly mild. Unlike years past, Nebraska has seen very few temperature tantrums, and as spring approaches, everything is more or less at a state of normal.

"This year is significant in how unremarkable it is," said Robert Swanson with a chuckle. He's the director of the U.S. Geological Survey's Nebraska Water Science Center, and he said most rivers right now are at their base levels.

Maps provided by the U.S. Geological Survey show streamflow levels in Nebraska in March 2011 and February 2012. Click here to see how much lower the levels are this year compared to last year.

Snowpack in the west, which was such a major problem last year, is even lower than normal, said Jason Lambrecht, associate director for hydrologic data with the Water Science Center.

"It looks like the mountain snowpack out in the Colorado Rockies and in Wyoming, it's below average. Not to say that March couldn't ramp up a little bit in snows, that's traditional," he said, "but right now they're below average, so expectations at this point would be (that) the Platte River would be running at normal levels through the spring."

(Click here for a real-time map with current streamflow in Nebraska from the U.S. Geological Survey.)

However, as any Nebraskan knows (and as this weird winter has shown), you can't take the weather for granted.

"Looking at March, there's an equal chance of below, above or normal rain," Lambrecht said. "We're right on that line."

Swanson agreed, saying, "This is the time of year to expect the unexpected. We're in our severe storm season right now, and since I've said we're at near-normal stream flows or above normal, that means our river systems are sort of pre-primed, and they will react quickly in a major precipitation rain event."

Flooding of the Platte and Missouri rivers last year cost Nebraska hundreds of millions of dollars, according to the Missouri River Flood Task Force.

Plattsmouth, located about 20 miles south of Omaha on the Missouri River, was one of the towns affected.

"Just the city - public infrastructure, water, wastewater, wells, road, water mains, sewer mains - going to be in the range of $3 million in damage," said Erv Portis, city administrator for Plattsmouth.

But the city is also suffering a different kind of flooding setback - a $45 million development that, thanks to an elevated flood line designation, has been effectively beached.

In the mid-2000s, investors proposed a 30-acre housing project on the east side of the city along the waterfront: Castaway Pointe. Both the city and investors separately contracted with two engineering firms to make sure the flood line wouldn't impact the project.

At the same time, Portis said, the Army Corps of Engineers warned that it was still evaluating the base flood elevation along the river, and that it could be altered.

The Corps held several hearings in mid-2010 on the topic, both in Plattsmouth and Cass County; they ended up raising the line by four feet.

"That affected Castaway Pointe, because what they had built was now within the flood way," Portis said.

He added that despite public announcements of the hearings, he never saw Castaway Pointe investors in attendance; repeated calls from NET News to a development representative were not returned.

Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Three of the only completed residences built on the Plattsmouth riverfront by Castaway Pointe, LLC, which is unable to build any of the other 170 residences planned because of an altered flood line

So what does this mean for Plattsmouth? Portis simply said that the city "hasn't seen any benefit" from the project; that perhaps understates what might have been. The finished resort would have included more than 170 condos, cottages and luxury homes. Instead, only five have been built; four of those remain on the market.

The $3 million of flood damage in Plattsmouth that Portis cited earlier doesn't include Castaway Pointe, and the city could be forced to spend even more as it looks to strengthen its water and wastewater infrastructure against future flooding.

"That is potentially very, very expensive," he said. "Eight (million) to $15 (million), $20 million, depending on what choices we make over the next couple of years."

Plattsmouth has been approved for federal and state funds, but Portis said they're still waiting to receive them: "We're like everyone else - expecting the dollars to flow soon. We are making repairs and incurring expenses. At this point, FEMA and NEMA have been really, really good to work with." As for the future of the would-be resort, Castaway Pointe looks like it's out at sea.

"Who's going to buy a property within the flood way?" Portis said. "I don't know the answer to that question."

Like Plattsmouth, those situated along the Platte and Missouri rivers are playing a bit of a waiting game; but as Swanson with the Water Science Center said earlier, this is the time of year to expect the unexpected.

The next month will be key. Snows in early winter have all melted and are water under the bridge, so to speak. But Swanson said any spring storms could have a big impact.

"These late-season snows are heavier, wetter, with higher moisture content, and if we get big ones, then they can make all the difference in the world and really turn things around."

But even if a major snowstorm hits Nebraska, Colorado or Wyoming in the next few weeks, Swanson said more groups and organizations than ever are tracking the weather and sharing data, meaning there's a lot more notice of flooding than in past,

"100 years ago, we didn't have that benefit. And that's when you've heard about towns being wiped out by flooding. They did not have warning," he said. "Some of the larger communities like Lincoln and Omaha have specific flood warning networks, because in the highly-populated areas, rainfall runs off of the impervious surface and flash flooding occurs much faster."

Swanson suggested concerned residents sign up for the USGS "WaterAlert" service, which sends emails or text messages when water levels in a certain area reach a certain height, according to subscriber's specifications.

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