ST. LOUIS (AP) - A hydrologist for the National Weather Service warned Thursday that towns along the upper part of the Mississippi River could be in for significant flooding this spring.
The Weather Service's St. Louis office released its Spring Flood Outlook last week, and the report was ominous. Tributaries are already running high, soil in northern states is saturated, and cold weather has kept snow from melting. Meanwhile, precipitation is expected to be above normal for February.
The report came out before this week's blizzard that dumped 2 feet of snow on parts of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, only adding to concerns.
"It appears likely we'll get moderate to major levels of flooding on the Mississippi," hydrologist Mark Fuchs said.
Fuchs said this week's storm doesn't help but shouldn't make a significant difference. Two feet of snow translates only to about an inch of precipitation.
Weather Service river watchers say the probability of major flooding is as high as 80 percent at a few spots in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois, and nearly as high in parts of northeast Missouri.
Among the towns in the 80 percent-plus range is Red Wing, Minn., a scenic community of 16,000 residents 50 miles south of the Twin Cities. Emergency director Roger Hand said he was aware of the flood forecast but not too worried about it, especially since few homes are in the floodplain.
"We're pretty well used to it here," Hand said. "We're not going to do anything until we see the water come up."
Forecasting is more difficult below where the Missouri and Mississippi converge near St. Louis, but flood concerns aren't as high below St. Louis because southeast Missouri and southern Illinois experienced drought conditions through 2010.
Flooding was also possible along the Missouri and Illinois rivers, according to the Weather Service outlook, but the prospects of serious flooding aren't as great.
High water is common in the spring, even expected. But Fuchs said computer models show the greatest flood risk in eight years along the Mississippi. That period includes 2008, when some areas of the Midwest had record floods.
Fuchs described "moderate" flooding as impacting people - water over roads and highways, into utility buildings. "Major" flooding indicates bigger concerns - water inside homes and businesses and over significant roadways, for example.
George Stringham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said levees are mostly ready for the spring. Two levees along the Mississippi still need minor repairs from damage during floods last summer. Both are in Missouri - one in Pike County, one in Lincoln County.
Stringham said the corps keeps a close eye on the river and flood predictions. A series of flood preparedness meetings with emergency workers along the Mississippi is planned. And the corps reduces the pool of its reservoirs in the winter, in anticipation of spring rains and runoff.
If flooding occurs, "we'll be flood-fighting side-by-side with the levee districts," Stringham said.
A best-case scenario leading to spring would be for gradual warming that would allow snow to the north to melt over time, Fuchs said.
"We have a volume of water sitting on the ground in Minnesota just waiting to come down, and in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois and even Missouri," Fuchs said. "If that comes down all at once, that's obviously a big problem."