2013 was a record-setting year for annual precipitation in the Minot area. In many years that would be welcome news for cropland, hayfields, rivers and sloughs. But a year of unprecedented precipitation throughout the region certainly has grabbed the attention of forecasters and weary residents still struggling to recover from devastating flooding in 2011.
Evidence of the effect of 2013's heavy precipitation can be seen throughout the Minot area. Water tables rose during the year. In places such as Rice Lake southwest of Minot, there was visible proof of aquifers reaching levels of saturation that exceeds recorded history. Many sloughs were full to overflowing at freeze-up. Excess water is seemingly everywhere, but what does it mean?
The reaction of most people who live in wetter than normal areas is that enough is enough. While it is much too early to tell what spring runoff will bring, each snowfall between now and the spring melt will be watched carefully and its moisture content closely evaluated. What is known is that whatever amount of snow that falls in the weeks and months ahead will land on saturated ground.
How much snow will this winter bring? While the answer to that question won’t be known for several weeks, it is known that any future snowfall will land on saturated ground. A train mounted snowplow clears tracks near Ruso in this January 2009 photo.
Fortunately, recent snowfalls have been relatively light with very little moisture content.
"The good thing is it has been a real, real dry snow," said Rick Krolak, of the Bismarck National Weather Service. "Because it has been so cold our snow has been like dust. That comes out of Canada. When the spring storms develop in Colorado, those are where we get the heavier type of snows."
So far, so good as far as the moisture content of recent snowfalls is concerned. Still, there are the record-setting precipitation totals for 2013 that will likely influence spring runoff. Saturated ground allows for very little absorption.
"It is a little depressing when you think about it. It is one of the key ingredients for determining how the spring will unfold," said Allen Schlag, Bismarck NWS hydrologist. "When the core space is occupied with water, snowmelt or spring rain can't go into the soil because it is already occupied by frozen water. That is disconcerting come springtime."
The amount of soil moisture in many areas, according to NWS data, places it in the upper 10 percent of all-time.
"That means only two to three times in the last 40 to 50 years have we seen soil moisture this high going into winter," explained Schlag.
The official NWS recording station at the Minot airport showed a 2013 total of 24.99 inches of precipitation through early morning Tuesday. That amount is the third most in 96 years of data collection. It is 7.81 inches over average and 11.33 inches more than what was recorded in 2012.
At the North Central Research and Extension Center south of Minot the numbers are even more astounding. The total precipitation for 2013 recorded through Tuesday morning was 33.28 inches. That amount, which includes snowfall moisture, broke the old record for precipitation by 6.29 inches and is a whopping 16.33 inches more than the 107-year average at that location.
"So far the snowpack above Lake Darling along the Souris River Basin in North Dakota, we think, is slightly above normal," said Schlag. "That's the water that's poised to come through Lake Darling, down through Minot and in the Des Lacs River. It is not alarmingly above normal."
With more than 10 weeks of winter remaining there is plenty of time to build snowpack, or the amount of snow could total less than normal.
"A lot can change. We're just too far away from that March timeframe for an estimate of runoff, but nothing will change in regard to soil moisture," stated Schlag. "I don't think we've seen this much water on the countryside since statehood. We are definitely seeing something, geographically speaking, that is very rare."