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Minnesota is still in the grip of winter, but already experts are warning that the conditions are ripe for significant spring flooding.

And that has homeowners scurrying to get flood insurance before it's too late.

"I would err on the side of protecting yourself," said Mark Seeley, former extension climatologist at the University of Minnesota. "If you have none, I would get some. If you have some, this might be the year you might want to look at getting the next level up."

Minnesota ended 2019 as the wettest year on record, leaving the ground saturated and rivers high even before the spring thaw. The snow across most of Minnesota's frozen landscape has 4 to 6 inches of water in it, and that already will generate a lot of water runoff, Seeley said. Even normal amounts of precipitation heading into spring will pose a flood threat, he said.

Many of the forecasting models are predicting it will be wetter than normal, which could add to the problem, Seeley said. The models also predict lower than normal temperatures, he said.

The National Weather Service is expected to release its latest spring flood predictions this week.

The $100,0000 question is whether the eventual spring melt will be rapid or gradual. The latter would reduce the amount of flooding, as it did last year. "It's too early to predict with any precision," Seeley said.

Waiting too long to buy flood insurance, however, may be risky, because it has to be in place 30 days before flooding begins, said Ceil Strauss, floodplain manager with the state Department of Natural Resources. "The message we're trying to get out is to get it now," she said.

Last year, 11,700 homeowners bought flood insurance, about a 35% jump over those who bought it in 2018, Strauss said.

Those who have federally backed mortgages are required to get flood insurance if they live in high-risk areas, she said. But some who don't have a mortgage and those who rent may not automatically think to get insurance if they live in those areas.

"One of the big gaps for flood insurance is renters," Strauss said. "Most don't know they live in a floodplain. They don't know they can get flood insurance for only contents."

About 10,000 to 20,000 Minnesotans live in high-risk flood areas, known as 100-year floodplains, she said. But there are many more who could be at risk of flooding because they live on the edge of those areas and in other areas not identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) — areas such as stormwater ponds and small streams, Strauss said.

"If you're on the edge of a 100-year floodplain, you have a higher percentage of flooding," she said. "Today's 500-year floodplain is tomorrow's 100-year plain. The trends are we are getting wetter. … Since 2000, widespread rains of more than 6 inches are four times more frequent than in the previous three decades.

The last seven years have been the wettest in Minnesota since record keeping began in 1895. "Spring melt is a concern," Strauss said. "But the big intense rains are becoming more common and a bigger concern."

Some lake property owners already are fending off high waters. Water levels are high in about a half-dozen landlocked lakes that don't have outlets where water can be released, Strauss said.

"Lake flooding is a huge issue right now," she said. Homeowners are pumping water away from their homes and trying to protect ice from damaging foundations.

For lake owners who don't have insurance already, it might be too late to get it.

In Fargo, Mayor Tim Mahoney is advising even some who don't live along the river to get insurance. "There's just too much water in the ground," he said. "That has me concerned."

Last year, a "perfect" spring melt kept flooding levels lower than expected, he said. "And this year, we had the perfect dry February," he said.

But more snow or heavy spring rains could easily ramp up the severity of flooding, Mahoney said. "It's a gamble. … But if you don't [get insurance] soon, then you're probably not going to get it in time."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788