By Nick Reynolds
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CASPER — Nearly two weeks after one of the most powerful winter storms of the decade hit the Northern Rockies and Midwest, Wyoming has largely moved past March’s record-setting snows and settled into the rhythm of spring.
In the fields, young calves graze alongside their mothers. In the oil fields, workers in their shirtsleeves have set to laying and welding the pipelines to facilitate another boom, and the state’s farmers have gotten back to work in the fields.
Neighboring Nebraska, meanwhile, has been struggling to dig itself out. While Wyoming was largely unscathed by the worst of the storm, Nebraska – which relies on agriculture for a significant share of its tax base – has been devastated by record-setting snows and unprecedented levels of flooding, which could leave the state reeling for years to come. Vast swaths of the state are just beginning to emerge from surges that shut down more than 70 counties and, in the long run, early estimates have assessed the total damage to the state’s economy in the billions of dollars.
Meanwhile, some have estimated more than one million head of cattle were wiped out in the storm – about a third of the state’s overall stock – and some fields have been ravaged to the point where it could take years – if not decades – to return to full productivity.
Though life has continued unabated in Wyoming – upriver from the swollen sections of the North Platte – the devastation felt across the state’s 138-mile border could ripple into the agrarian economy of the Equality State. Though no state or federal agencies track the economic relationship between the two states, Wyoming’s ranchers depend mightily on Nebraska, both as a place to winter their cattle and as a source of the crops required to keep their animals fed the rest of the year.
“We rely on Nebraska a lot,” said Brett Moline, director of public and governmental affairs for the Wyoming Farm Bureau Association. “A lot of our feed grains come in from Nebraska and eastern South Dakota. That’s one reason we move cattle out there – it’s cheaper to move the cattle than it is to move the feed. We’ll have to see what the storms do to feed prices too.”
“If the floods do have an impact, I doubt it’s positive,” he added.
What level of impact the flooding in Nebraska will have on Wyoming, however, is difficult to quantify, and depends on the length of time it takes Nebraska to recover. Crops are planted in the spring, so it’s a question of whether the floods recede and the fields dry out in time to lay seed in the ground on schedule.
Whether or not that happens in time is an uncertainty. According to Scott Cotton, the leader of the University of Wyoming’s Disaster Education Program and the former national chairman of the Extension Disaster Education Network, many of the corn and soybean fields Wyoming relies on to stock the feedlots in the eastern part of the state were impacted, with significant infrastructure damage elsewhere.
“I could think of a half-dozen ways it could impact us, but I don’t have enough information to say that it will impact us in any one of them,” said Jim Magagna, executive director of the Wyoming Stockgrower’s Association. “You expect it likely will to some degree, but it’s kind of a guessing game right now.”
Meanwhile, getting a crop in the ground may be the least of the state’s priorities right now. Even weeks after the storm, many communities – most of which are connected by two-lane highways – are cut off from one another, with supplies scarce and difficult to move.
“It’s a long way to help, because help has to come in from somewhere outside the impact zone,” said Cotton. “The big thing is getting access open. As soon as access opens, we can pour more response to them. As soon as the roads get open. Life and safety is always first, then animals, then property, and then long-term community recovery comes in. That takes a long time.”
According to a spokesperson within the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security – which administers formal disaster response – no formal requests for aid have come from Nebraska yet, leaving much of Wyoming’s response to the storm informal to this point.
Behind the scenes, representatives from the counties and DHS met in Riverton last week to discuss disaster relief. So far, they have responded in kind, coordinating ranchers across the state in donating 300 tons of hay to Nebraska. Meanwhile, Gov. Mark Gordon – in coordination with Nebraska – waived several transportation regulations to allow for a freer flow of supplies into areas of need.
“Nebraska had issued an executive order that allowed relief from hours of service of drivers and size and weight limits,” Rachel Girt, a spokeswoman for Gordon, wrote in an email. “If another state issues an executive order waiving limits, restrictions, etc., Wyoming’s ports of entries can rely on the destination state’s executive order.”
However, Wyoming’s involvement in Nebraska’s relief efforts will be limited until a formal request is made through something called an emergency management assistance compact. Though membership of a group to facilitate such a response was discussed at last week’s meeting in Riverton, such an agreement has yet to be invoked.
Gordon, meanwhile, said Wyoming was prepared to get involved if needed.
“Wyoming stands ready to assist in the emergency response and our hearts go out to those impacted by the flooding and severe winter weather as well as to the first responders who are saving lives,” Gordon said in a statement. “The First Lady and I send our prayers to the thousands of people in Nebraska and other states whose lives have been devastated by this historic flood event.”
As climate change has made the planet’s weather more prone to unpredictable and violent weather events, disasters like those seen in Nebraska can soon become more of a reality. The most natural comparison to this year’s floods could be the blizzard of 1949, which was estimated to have killed roughly 55,000 head of cattle in Wyoming.
Notably, that was nowhere close to this year’s estimated kill.
“We’ve got a pattern, and we kind of have a feel for things, but the reality is for Nebraska and parts of Iowa and Kansas… we define floods by severity,” said Cotton. “There’s 50-year floods, there’s 100-year floods, there’s 500-year floods… they’re saying this is a 1,000-year event.”
Meanwhile, conditions could get worse. According to a spring outlook published by the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration last week, above-average spring rains and melting snow could mean continued levels of flooding throughout the Midwest, prolonging the misery into the summer months.
According to Shane Hayden, water chief for the Wyoming Bureau of Reclamation, conditions for similar floods in Wyoming are currently unlikely. Glendo Reservoir – which manages the flow of the North Platte River in Wyoming – is well below the flood pool (the level where the Army Corps of Engineers steps in).
Conditions can always change, however, as the snow begins to melt off the mountains. While the snowpack here is currently at average or slightly above average levels, in past years, if there is significant snowpack in the North and South Platte and heavy rains, the effects can be felt all the way out east. According to a recent spring flooding outlook from the National Weather Service’s Office in Riverton, flood risks in Wyoming are limited to Saratoga and near Laramie.
Whatever does happen, ultimately, is up to the whims of planet Earth.
“Just like every year, Mother Nature does what it does, and we just hope for the best,” said Hayden.