Soaked Midwest Soil Boosts Flood Risk for Wheat, Sandbag Cities

Excessive snow in the northern Great Plains and Midwest may spur floods that rival the record- setting deluge of 2009, threatening U.S. wheat crops and livestock as cities in the region stockpile sandbags.

Since October, North Dakota, the largest wheat-growing state, South Dakota and Minnesota got almost 3 feet (91 centimeters) more snow than usual, National Weather Service data show. More than 20 inches remain in some areas, about the same amount that was on the ground at this time in 2009, before floods along the Red River of the North caused about $223.7 million in damage and killed more than 91,000 cattle.

Planting delays may curb wheat output for a third year in the U.S., the world’s largest exporter. Global inventories of the grain already were eroded by floods last year in Australia and Canada and a drought in Russia that sent wheat prices to two-year high last month. World food prices tracked by the United Nations reached a record in February.

“There is strong interest in wheat” from traders because of the potential threat to U.S. production, said Jim Peterson, the marketing director of the Bismarck-based North Dakota Wheat Commission, an industry group. If floods delay the start of spring planting until late April, “you’ll start seeing the market get quite concerned,” he said.

Saturated Land

Frozen soil can’t absorb water if snow melts too rapidly, and most ground in the three-state region is saturated after wetter-than-normal weather since September. Areas around the Red River, which flows north to Canada and forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, may get the equivalent of 0.25 inch of rain this weekend, said Bill Barrett, a weather service meteorologist in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

“We expect in the next 10 days we will be deploying sandbags” to prevent the overflow of the Red River, said Michael Redlinger, the city manager of Moorhead, Minnesota, which is spending as much as $200,000 on temporary flood barriers. “It is definitely getting closer now.”

Almost half the U.S. has an above-average risk of flooding through April, with areas of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota among the regions with the highest threat, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today. Eastern South Dakota may experience “moderate to major flooding” next week as rising temperatures melt snow, the government agency said.

Fargo Flood

In 2009, the Red River swelled beyond flood stage in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city, for a record 61 days. That caused $184.7 million of damage on the North Dakota side of the river, according the state’s Department of Emergency Services. Minnesota’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management estimated losses in the state at $39 million.

This year, current snow conditions in many areas “certainly rival or even exceed” levels from 2009, said Steve Buan, a service coordination hydrologist with the North Central River Forecast Center in Chanhassen, Minnesota.

“We’re expecting widespread overland flooding throughout much of the southern half of the Red River valley,” he said.

When the snow melt is combined with ground that was saturated by rains five months ago, the potential for flooding exists along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers all the way down to St. Louis, Buan said.

Acreage Rebound

North Dakota sowed 8.2 million acres with spring wheat and durum last year, rebounding 1.2 percent from 2009, when acreage was the lowest since 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Planting usually starts in April and is completed in May. If fields dry out in time, farmers may add as much as 5 percent more acres than last year, because prices are up from 2010, the Wheat Commission’s Peterson said.

Wheat futures reached a two-year high of $9.1675 a bushel on Feb. 15 on the Chicago Board of Trade. Since then, prices have dropped 23 percent to $7.1025, as the earthquake in Japan threatened to cut demand from the second-largest U.S. export market. The commodity remains 43 percent higher than a year ago.

Extensive flooding may spur farmers in South Dakota to plant soybeans rather than corn, while some wheat fields in North Dakota may be left unsown, said Nick Kouchoukos, the president of Lanworth Inc. in Chicago.

Collect Insurance

“If we go back and look at historical data, the years where you do see heavy rain and lots of flooding and precipitation, we do see an increase in what’s categorized as fallow,” Kouchoukos said. “Some of it ultimately is not going to get planted,” because some farmers will choose to collect on crop-insurance policies rather than take the risk of a damaged harvest, he said.

Most spring wheat should be planted before May 10 to ensure that crops aren’t damaged by frost before the harvest, which usually occurs in August and September, the Wheat Commission’s Peterson said.

“In the southern part of our region, they like to get going in the fields the first part of April, and this year that’s looking more doubtful,” Peterson said.

For the winter season, Fargo received 74 inches of snow, as of March 15, or 34.8 inches above normal, according to the National Weather Service. The Minneapolis-St. Paul area got 80.2 inches, or 33.3 inches above average. Duluth, Minnesota, recorded 79.4 inches, or 10.7 inches above normal.

September was the wettest on record for Minnesota, with 6.47 inches of rain breaking the old mark of 6.2 inches set in 1900, according to the state’s Climatology Office website.

Cattle Threatened

Extended cold, wet conditions may threaten cattle supplies, as most calves are born in March and April, said Charles Stoltenow, an extension veterinarian at North Dakota State University in Fargo. Cattle futures reached a record $1.18 a pound on March 9, and U.S. wholesale choice beef costs are up 22 percent from last year.

Young calves “don’t have a lot of energy reserves,” Stoltenow said. “If we have too much wet and cold, we lose quite a few to hypothermia as well as flooding conditions.”

The next two weeks will determine the extent of the flood risk, said Dennis Walaker, the mayor of Fargo, which has 2.5 million sandbags already filled.

“We’re planning for a significant and serious flood, and we don’t have any choice in doing that,” Walaker said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Whitney McFerron in Chicago at wmcferron1@bloomberg.net; Brian K. Sullivan in Boston at bsullivan10@bloomberg.net.

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