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Crop, Livestock Flood Risk Boosted by Heavier North Dakota Snow

Heavy snow and rain in the U.S. Midwest may cause damaging overflows along the Red River of the North, where record floods in 2009 delayed or reduced planting of crops and killed 91,000 cattle in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Most of region from Montana to Wisconsin is coated in more than 13 inches (33 centimeters) of snow, on average, compared with about 8 inches in 2009, said Allen Motew, the director of QT Weather in Chicago. The area around the Red River has as much as 3 feet (0.9 meter) of snow, three times more than last year, and covering an area more widespread than in 2009, Motew said.

Melting snow in March and April may swamp soil already saturated from wetter-than-normal weather since October, Motew said. The La Nina weather pattern may increase precipitation through April, boosting the likelihood of near-record flooding, he said. Wheat prices already are up 56 percent in the past year, and cattle futures reached a record yesterday in Chicago.

“It would probably take a perfect situation to alleviate spring flooding, with the conditions they have,” Motew said. “That’s possible, but probably not likely.”

Much of North Dakota and South Dakota has had up to four times the normal amount of rain and snow in the past 30 days, Motew said. The region may receive as much as 9 inches of snow in the next 10 days, he said.

Sioux Falls, the biggest city in South Dakota, had record precipitation of 38.62 inches last year, topping the 1993 record of 36.11 inches, according to the High Plains Regional Climate Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Waterford City and Williston had record snow in December, the center said.

North Dakota Crops

Excess water may hurt as many as 2 million acres of crops this year, or about 9.3 percent of the total farmland planted in North Dakota in 2010, said Joel Ransom, an agronomist at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

“The heavy snowfall could be a very serious problem,” Ransom said. “It’s a huge area that will have potential flooding issues this year, and plenty of farmland will be impacted.” Planting delays also could reduce yield potential, he said.

La Nina, caused by cooling equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean, may “give us a cool March, slowing the snow melt and raising the potential for new snowfall,” said Drew Lerner, the president of World Weather Inc. in Overland Park, Kansas. April may “trend warmer,” which could cause snow to melt quickly, resulting in “serious flooding and damage,” he said.

Even if snow melts slowly, allowing the region to avoid floods, crop planting may be delayed because fields are buried, Lerner said.

‘Widespread Flooding’

“The potential for widespread flooding is very large, but it will be all about the timing of the snow melt,” Lerner said.

The Red River flows north into Canada through wheat and sugar-beet country. The river’s record 40.8-foot crest in Fargo in 2009 prompted federal emergency payments of more than $150 million. Last year, the river peaked at almost 37 feet without causing major damage before flood waters receded. North Dakota is the biggest U.S. grower of wheat and dry edible beans.

January, February and March of this year are expected to be colder than normal, limiting thaw, and snow depths have reached more than 16 inches above normal for large portions of the Red River Basin, said Fred Gesser, a senior agricultural meteorologist at Planalytics Inc. in Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

“March storms, early April rain, and typical April thaw could easily lead to flooding similar to last year,” Gesser said. “The record-breaking 2009 flood might be a reach, but not unreachable.”

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