Missouri River floods as holiday weekend approaches

Thursday, May 26, 2011 | 7:29 p.m. CDT; updated 10:28 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 1, 2011

COLUMBIA — Jeff Barrow has been on the Missouri River at flood stage. The current moves faster, and the river can behave differently. He remembers seeing a vortex forming behind a concrete barrier of the Interstate 70 bridge at Rocheport years ago.

Barrow, director of Missouri River Relief and a two-time participant in the Missouri River 340 — the world's longest nonstop river race — knew to stay away.

“It would suck you in and flip you over,” he said. “I knew to avoid those areas, but if you had someone who didn't know what they were doing you'd have gotten caught in it.”

The Missouri River was at 22.7 feet Thursday morning at Boonville, and the National Weather Service was forecasting a crest of 28.3 feet Saturday evening. Flood stage is 21 feet.

While the high levels pose a danger to river recreation, flood damage is not expected this week, said hydrologist Robert Jacobson of the U.S. Geological Survey office in Columbia.

He said levees should keep water from spilling into cropland.

But those levels can create added threats to boaters during the holiday weekend. Jacobson said that as the river’s flow increases, the river begins carrying more debris, especially if the water reaches a height it hasn’t for some time.

"The main thing is that if you flip over, you're not able to get to shore because you could be in the woods,” Barrow said. “You'd have to swim through trees, fence wire, that sort of thing.”

Debris picked up by a flooded river is often partially or fully submerged and adds a particular danger for boaters headed upstream, said Steve Schnarr of Missouri River Relief.

Schnarr said flooding also accentuated any turbulence in the river, meaning the current wells up in odd formations that can jar boaters, like the swirl that Barrow saw near Rocheport.

“When the river reaches flood stage, it's really a good idea to stay off it unless there's a reason to be on it,” Barrow said. “That way, emergency services can deal with actual problems rather than additional ones from people just messing around on the river.”

Jacobson said a high water level for the Missouri has been the norm this year because of melting snow pack in the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains that feed into the upper river basin. For that reason, he said, the river level will probably stay high through much of the summer.

In coming weeks, the Missouri River could get significant increases in flow from upstream reservoirs. The Army Corps of Engineers said in a recent statement that it would be releasing record amounts of water from the Gavins Point Dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border, as well as other reservoirs in the Dakotas.

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