HOUGHTON - Deeply frozen turf that could prevent water from seeping into the ground could contribute to local flooding in the case of a sudden thaw, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Todd Kluber. But for the most part, he said, the harsh winter of 2013-14 won't make flooding any more or less likely than normal in the Copper Country.
"There's still less than a 50 percent chance we'll see rivers reach flood levels this spring," said Kluber, from the NWS Negaunee Township office. "Currently chances are about average."
For flooding to occur, he said, the area would likely need at least three or four days with warmer daytime temperatures and nights that remained above freezing. Adding an inch or two of rain to that type of situation would significantly increase the likelihood of rivers rising above their banks.
Dan Roblee/Daily Mining Gazette
Snowbanks are high and water levels low — and iced over — along the Sturgeon River Slough in this photo taken Thursday. Experts say the Sturgeon is the area’s greatest flood risk if snow melts quickly this spring.
"At this point in the season that's not too common," Kluber said. "In April we start to see more days above freezing."
In April 2013, both the Sturgeon River near Alston and Chassell, and the Trap Rock River near Lake Linden reached flood levels, but neither rose high enough to cause widespread damage. In any rapid melt, the Sturgeon River watershed is the area most likely to be affected, Kluber said.
"The impacts we usually see are limited to houses along the river and the U.S. 41 bridge," he said. "It takes a while for water to reach the bridge level, and looking at the past, usually we don't have many times where it would make it impassable."
After unusually heavy early season snows, on-the-ground snow totals are now pretty close to normal in most areas, Kluber said. The only notable exception is Keweenaw County, but the deep snow pack there presents little danger because runoff generally has short distances to travel before discharging into Lake Superior, giving rivers little chance to rise to flood levels.
In Baraga, a rapid May 2013 snow melt led to a culvert in the village failing at the corner of N. Main and Hemlock streets.
The village has been forced to live with a temporary fix since then, after failing to receive the estimated $60,000 to $80,000 needed for replacement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to Village Manager Roy Kemppainen.
But with the assistance of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Baraga received help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and permanent repairs are planned for this summer.
Kemppainen said he hoped the temporary fix would hold through this spring, but said the village could close the crossing if necessary without major consequences.
"It's not a through street right now," he said. "There's access from the opposite direction."
He said the village is also watching other culverts as this spring approaches, including one near Baraga Area High School, where the development of a sinkhole indicates a problem.
"We're going to have to keep an eye on a few different areas depending on how fast the snow melts," Kemppainen said. "We have to make sure the culverts aren't plugged - get them cleaned out so water can't get into the system and make sure there are no ice problems."
George Madison of the Department of Natural Resources fisheries department said high spring flows also occur in unpopulated areas in the region, but that those generally wooded areas can handle the water.
Madison said flooding can make laying eggs difficult for spring-spawning fish like steelhead, smelt and walleye, but it can also wash away abandoned beaver dams which make water too warm for brook trout.
One area of concern is always hydroelectric dams like the Sturgeon River's Prickett Dam, he said. But since the failure in 2003 of two dams on the Dead River near Marquette, other dams have received plenty of attention.
"Power companies have put a lot of energy and attention into those structures to make sure they can handle high-flow conditions," Madison said.