Water Resources of North Dakota

Extent and Magnitude of Precipitation and Flooding During 1993 in the Upper Mississippi and Red River of the North Basins

By Gregg J. Wiche

Abstract: 39th Annual Midwest Ground-Water Conference, Bismarck, North Dakota, October 16-18 1994



Excessive precipitation produced severe flooding in a nine-State area in the upper Mississippi River Basin during the spring and summer of 1993. The same weather patterns that caused flooding in the nine-State area, including North Dakota, also produced widespread flooding of unprecedented magnitude in the Red River of the North Basin. The purpose of this presentation is to describe the extent and magnitude of the precipitation and flooding, especially in North Dakota. Weather-station data for 10 selected locations in the nine-state area were used to characterize precipitation over the flood-affected area. In 1993, the 10 selected locations received more than the normal precipitation for January through June 1961-90; 8 of the 10 locations received more than 200 percent of the normal precipitation for July and 3 received more than 400 percent of the normal precipitation for July. Bismarck received about 650 percent of the normal precipitation for July. In North Dakota, precipitation was near normal in April and May and much greater than normal in June; however, precipitation in the western part of the flooded area in North Dakota was near normal until the last week in June.

Peak discharges at 154 streamflow-gaging stations in the upper Mississippi River Basin exceeded those for a 10-year recurrence interval. At 41 streamflow-gaging stations, the peak discharges exceeded the previous known peak discharges. At 45 gaging stations, the peak discharges exceeded those for a 100-year recurrence interval. In North Dakota, the most severe flooding occurred in the upper James River, Devils Lake, and Red River of the North Basins and on several tributaries to the Missouri River.

The most severe flooding in the Devils Lake Basin occurred in the Edmore Coulee subbasin where recorded unit-runoff was one of the greatest for a gaged stream in North Dakota. Runoff caused largely by the extreme summer precipitation during 1993 produced the second largest inflow to Devils Lake in about 110 years. As a result of the inflow, the lake rose 5.2 feet from March through December 1993.

Although maximum or near maximum stages occurred at gaging stations in the Sheyenne River Basin, peak discharges were less than the peak discharges for the period of record. As an example, the maximum stage for the Sheyenne River at Valley City was 18.05 feet and the discharge was 3,830 cubic feet per second during the 1993 flood. The previous maximum stage was 17.62 feet in 1969, but the discharge was 4,580 cubic feet per second.

The most severe flooding in the James River Basin occurred in and around Jamestown and upstream of Jamestown Reservoir. Peak discharge at the James River near Manfred gaging station exceeded that for a 100-year recurrence interval. The peak discharge also exceeded the peak that occurred during the spring snowmelt floods of 1950 and 1979. Peak discharge at the James River at Jamestown gaging station exceeded that for the 100-year recurrence interval for the period of record since regulation (1953-93). The peak at Jamestown is unusual because most of the runoff contributing to the peak came from areas in and adjacent to Jamestown. Little flooding was attributed to releases from Pipestem or Jamestown Reservoirs.

The extent and damages caused by the flooding were much greater than might be expected on the basis of computed recurrence intervals for peak discharges. During the 1993 flood, summer vegetation increased the resistance to flow, and a higher stage was required to pass a given discharge. Widespread floods are unusual in North Dakota during the growing season.

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