Why hello there yard! Somehow in the blink of an eye as I was unfurling my scarf and taking off two layers of pants, the earth turned, the thermometer jumped, and three feet of snow disappeared from the hill in front of my house. For one glorious week, we were all walking around recklessly outdoors without hats on our heads, happily stretching mittenless fingers in the sun. Large quantities of snow have melted in the past week, but in spite of this, the National Weather Service is still predicting record floods throughout Minnesota this spring. In fact, they issued a revised flood forecast on February 17 that actually increases the odds of flooding for all major river systems, including the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers. Local officials fear that parts of the East Metro will see significant flooding, and several smaller streams in Washington County pose a risk as well.
The problem, says Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley, is that most of the snow that has melted so far is still in the watershed – meaning on the land – and has not yet reached the Mississippi or St. Croix Rivers. Now with the cold returned and more snow in the forecast, much of that melted runoff is being held in limbo until later in the spring. According to WCCO news, there is a 95 to 98 percent chance of major flooding on the Mississippi River in St. Paul and a 75 percent chance of flooding on the St. Croix River in Stillwater. In the coming weeks, Washington County Emergency Management is coordinating flood preparation with local cities and watershed organizations, as well as volunteer agencies. Meanwhile, there are several things that local residents can do now before the water starts to rise.
To begin, local officials are urging homeowners and businesses to consider buying flood insurance, especially if they are in low-lying areas near a river or close to a permanent or seasonal stream (Trout Brook in Afton, March 2007). Streams can flash flood quickly with little warning, and many low-lying areas that haven’t flooded in decades could be underwater this spring. A standard homeowner’s insurance policy does not provide flood coverage and flood insurance has a 30-day waiting period before it goes into effect, so the window of opportunity for most people is closing rapidly. Most homeowners living in high-risk flood areas already have some type of coverage, but according to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, 20-25% of flood claims come from outside these high-risk zones. The National Flood Insurance Program’s Preferred Risk policy, which costs just over $100 per year, is designed for residential properties located in low to moderate flood risk zones. Information about purchasing flood insurance can be found on-line at www.floodsmart.gov.
Homeowners can also minimize the impacts of flooding by elevating furniture and household items in flood-prone basements and moving any loose items such as lawn furniture, gardening tools and bags of dirt out of low areas in their yards. Now is also a good time for people to rake or shovel leaves and debris out of streets and storm drain inlets. Doing this will help to keep streets from flooding and will also keep the dirt, litter and debris accumulated during the winter from washing into local lakes and streams and causing pollution.
For people living in rural areas, the Minnesota Department of Health offers some precautions for dealing with flooded wells and septic systems. Because flooded wells usually become contaminated, people should use bottled water for everything other than toilet flushing until the water recedes and there is time to flush and disinfect the well. The Department of Health has detailed information about how dealing with flooded wells on their website, http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/wells/waterquality/flooded.html.
Flooded septic systems can also become contaminated or clogged with silt, so they need to be pumped as soon as possible after the flood recedes and prior to resuming use. Interestingly, tanks cannot be left empty while the soil is still saturated, because they may actually float up and out of the ground. Those dealing with flooding in their homes should also be careful to keep foot and vehicle traffic off of their drainfields during flood cleanup so that the soils do not become compacted. Last, but not least, anyone with a septic system should use household water sparingly while the ground is soggy to prevent the septic from backing up into the home.
Spring can be a double-edged sword in Minnesota. It is a time to welcome the return of green leaves and twittering birds, as well as a time to don knee-high boots and wade through mud. Local communities hope that by planning ahead now, they can minimize the impacts of spring flooding on their businesses and residents. Unless you own an ark, take a little time now to prepare your home, yard and streetside; for the rains, they are a coming.