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Water managers hoping for slow thaw and no rain event

“One thing we don’t want right now is a rain event.”

4/03/13 (Wed)

By Caroline Downs

“One thing we don’t want right now is a rain event.”

That statement was repeated Monday by staff members at the Des Lacs and J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuges as they discussed possible flooding concerns facing the Des Lacs and Mouse River watersheds.

Most area residents would probably agree.

Over 60” of snow
for winter 2012-2013
Snow pack measured March 25th at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge stood at 25” and was estimated to contain 6.25” of moisture.

Calvin Moldenhauer, fire management specialist at the Des Lacs NWR, records the weather data at refuge headquarters every day and maintains the refuge records. He supplies information to National Weather Service office in Bismarck, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Mountain-Prairie Region office in Denver, and The Kenmare News. Lately, those federal offices send him frequent inquiries about the condition of the snow pack here. “They want to know how much it’s changing from one week to the next,” he said.

March has been a wetter month in 2013 than it was in either 2012 or 2011. “December, January and February were pretty dry,” Moldenhauer said, “but so far this year, from October through March 31st, we’re pushing 60 inches of snow for the winter.”

According to Moldenhauer’s records, more than a third of that snow arrived since March 1st, with 22” noted, providing 2.49” of moisture. “That’s an estimate,” he cautioned. “It’s hard to measure snow from a blizzard.”

In fact, the tally for snow so far this winter stands at 60.75”, yielding 7.44” of precipitation.

Moldenhauer provided the same data for the period October through May for the past three winters, with 2011-2012 recording 28.9” of snow and 7.67” total precipitation. Snowfall in 2010-2011 measured 69.2” with 12.48” total precipitation, and snowfall in 2009-2010 measured 49.05” with 12.06” total moisture.

None of the precipitation measured for winter 2012-2013 has come in the form of rain, yet.

Refuge manager Chad Zorn is holding the 2013 numbers up against the weather forecast. “I’m watching the extended forecast like everybody else,” he said, “hoping it will change for the better.”

With temperatures dipping below zero the last two nights of March and highs reaching only into the 20s, the snow pack has been thawing slowly, perhaps too slowly for winter-weary residents of the area, including humans, deer and Canada geese that arrived late last week and started scouting their nest sites.

High readings for the next week are expected to reach into the upper 30s and low 40s, with overnight lows in the teens and 20s. The probability for measurable precipitation ranges from 10 to 20 percent.

The way things look for the next few days, it should be a slow melt,” Zorn said.

Residents living downstream of the refuge, before the Des Lacs River joins the Mouse River near Burlington, might have wanted a different outcome, preferring the Des Lacs River water to move through the system before releases into the Mouse River from Canada have to be increased in response to the spring runoff.

Zorn said there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, flow through the river channel at this time, though. “We think we’re still frozen pretty solid,” he said.

The refuge water units have an estimated storage capacity of 22,500 acre feet available at this time, most of which is in Unit 2, which extends from west of the Kenmare Country Club north to the Canadian border.

“That’s not actually a lot of storage space, though,” Zorn said, “I think we’re going to be at capacity.”

Water control structures on the lake units north of the headquarters already have boards in place to maximize the holding capacity of each unit.

However, Zorn explained the boards were not installed in the south units last fall because refuge personnel have been working for nearly two years to dry Units 5 and 6 in order to clean and clear the channel there.

“We wanted to get those dried up and get an excavator in there to dig out the siltation that has built up,” he said. “We thought if we did not hold any water in there through the spring, we could get a head start on the drying process.”

Those plans can change, however. “We will pool water there as long as it’s needed,” Zorn said. “We can’t go out and put the boards in there right now because everything’s frozen, but when it starts thawing, we will board those up as high as we can.”

According to Zorn, the key to water management at the Des Lacs refuge in the coming weeks will be communication, especially with personnel managing water on the Upper Souris and J. Clark Salyer NWRs. “We’re staying in communication with the Upper Souris refuge staff and downstream residents, to help those folks out,” Zorn said. “The agencies are working together on the flows and trying to be consistent with the management of the water, to do the best we can.”

He reminded area residents they can expect to see the water spill over once levels on the Des Lacs lakes exceed the height of the water control structures. “We’re really limited in what we can do here,” he said.

Open water flowing
from well west of town
Even as Zorn described water conditions on the Des Lacs refuge, he noted the open water seen near the railroad crossing at the west edge of Kenmare. “There’s been open water on the north side of the bridge there all winter,” he said.

The source of that water is a well located at an old shop site near there on the refuge. “That water is not coming from the north lake, flowing through there,” he said. “It’s well water, and it flowed all summer, too.”

According to Zorn, refuge personnel will seal the well during the summer of 2013. “Right now, though, you can see mink, birds and deer drinking there,” he said.

Boat Dock Road
closed until dry
Zorn reminded residents that the gates to the Boat Dock Road northwest of Kenmare were closed in mid-March because of the amount of snow received. “The roads are impassable because of the snow,” he said, “and the gates will stay closed until the road dries, to prevent damage.”

The Scenic Lake road running south of Kenmare should be bladed later this week to improve access on that route. “We want to get as much snow off that road as we can, to get it thawing and open faster,” Zorn said.

Anyone with further questions about early spring conditions at the Des Lacs NWR should contact Zorn at 701-385-4046 ext. 225 during refuge hours.