Snowmelt floods, record breaking on many streams and outstanding in terms of total area affected and runoff volumes generated, occurred in late March and early April 1960 on Missouri River tributaries in adjacent parts of six states. In order of area affected, the States are Nebraska, South Dakota, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Missouri.
Five lives were lost, and the estimated damage was $14 million. Main-stem reservoirs kept Missouri River stages substantially below potential unregulated levels. Without regulation by reservoirs, the stage at Sioux City and Omaha would have been about 9 feet higher than it was and the damage would have been many millions of dollars more than actually occurred.
The floods were caused by rapid melting of an extensive snow cover of unusual depth and water equivalent, augmented by light to moderate rains. Temperatures almost continuously below normal, beginning in late December and culminating in record lows at many places during the first half of March, resulted in the retention of record snow accumulations, much later and much farther south than normal. The snowfall in eastern Nebraska from December 27 to March 26 was about twice the annual average. The excessive snowfall and below-normal temperatures produced a record-breaking 75-day period of continuous snow cover at Omaha.
A rapidly rising, eastward-moving temperature pattern late in March, in combination with an easterly orientation of many Nebraska streams, tended to magnify flood peaks. The rapid temperature rise started about March 18 in western Nebraska but not until March 26 in the eastern part of the State. As a consequence, flood discharges from the headwaters, often bearing heavy ice floes, arrived in the lower reaches simultaneously with or even ahead of the breakup of the unusually heavy ice cover and caused serious jamming. Comparisons of the peak discharges of the 1960 snowmelt floods with those of previous floods reveal several interesting facts. Peak discharges on the Missouri main stem were appreciably less than those in several other years, largely because of effective reservoir control of upstream runoff, but, many tributaries throughout the report area had maximum discharges for their periods of record. Particularly significant are comparisons at some stations for which historical flood data were available. For example, the peak discharge of the Platte River at Louisville, Nebr., was the greatest since at least 1881, and the peak on the Elkhorn River at Waterloo, Nebr., was the greatest snowmelt flood since at least 1912, although it was less than half of the rain peak of June 12, 1944.
Following a characteristic pattern for snowmelt floods, the peaks on the smaller streams generally were not unusual, but the cumulative effect of widespread high runoff throughout the stream systems caused higher and more outstanding peaks in the larger basins. Peaks due to local rains of high intensity often are more significant for small areas.
Snowmelt floods occur less frequently than rainfall floods in most basins of this flood area.. Studies made for this report show that an average of only about one out of every four maximum annual flood discharges in the report area results primarily from snowmelt. But for streams flowing from north to south in South Dakota and Iowa, the ratio of snowmelt peaks to rainfall peaks is higher.
Comparisons of 1960 flood volumes with those for previous floods are even more striking than peak-discharge comparisons. Flood volumes at eight selected stations for the maximum 20-day period during March and April 1960 exceeded all previous 20-day volumes with only one exception; the ratios ranged from 3.11 for Vermillion River near Wakonda, S. Dak., to 0.93 for Elkhorn River at Waterloo, Nebr. The ratio of the 20-day volume to the 1960 annual runoff for the same group of stations ranged from 20 percent at Niobrara River near Spencer, Nebr., to 74 percent on the Vermillion River. For the lat
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USGS Numbered Series
Floods of March-April 1960 in Eastern Nebraska and adjacent states