While the first day official day of spring is just a few weeks away—with the equinox landing on March 20—major snowfall throughout February has continued into more snow in March and made many wonder if this winter might last forever.
Although forecasts call for even more snow next week, spring—in fact— is still coming.
But, along with all the joy and excitement that will come when temperatures finally begin to rise and snow starts to melt, there is also concern about what will happen when all that snow turns into water.
According to an updated spring flood outlook released by the National Weather Service (NWS) on Thursday, there is a “much-above-normal risk” of spring flooding throughout much of eastern Nebraska as well as an increased risk for major flooding due to winter snowfall, wet soil and waterways that are already running high.
“We get flooding every year somewhere in Nebraska it’s not too uncommon, but the thing that sets this year apart is all the moisture in play, the snowpack, the ground is very wet, the rivers have a lot of ice, so that is a threat,” NWS Senior Hydrologist David Pearson told the Tribune on Friday. “With all that combined we are seeing a pretty good probability of increasing that normal threat for flooding and major flooding.”
While the NWS report says that the biggest risks for flooding in eastern Nebraska are on the Missouri river south of Nebraska City, on the Loup River from Genoa to Columbus, on the Big Blue River from Suprise to Barneston and on the North Fork of the Elkhorn River, there are also elevated flood risks in areas that could effect Fremont, Dodge County and other surrounding areas.
One of those risks involves ice jams alongs the Platte River, Pearson said.
“We are very concerned with the ice jam potential along the Platte especially,” he said. “The ice is really thick and it’s going nowhere fast. Maybe this week or next week we could see some movement, but for the most part it is a very late break up of ice.”
Pearson said that the threat of potential ice jams along the Platte is of more immediate concern, while additional rainfall over the next month or so could lead to more flooding later this spring.
“There is the ice jam threat which is a short term threat, that would happen within the next two or three weeks if it were to happen,” he said. “Beyond that when the ice is gone the ground is still going to be wet, the rivers are going to be running high and if we get into a wet pattern we could be right back to being flooded again. So everything is kind of primed for flooding to occur at this point if we get rainfall.”
Pearson said that ice jam flooding along the Platte is rare, specifically in the Fremont area, but that when it does occur it is dangerous due to the quickness of flooding in an effected area.
“Ice jams can be very volatile,” he said. “It can happen very quickly because the ice can be moving and the next thing you know it stops and behind it the water backs up and can rise quickly, sometimes several feet within an hour.”
The Elkhorn River below Norfolk to the Platte River and the Platte River from Columbus to the Missouri River are listed at an “above-normal” risk for flooding this spring.
Maple Creek is also at the “above-normal” risk distinction despite that, as of March 8, it was running right around 3.2 feet near Nickerson, while the flood stage is estimated at 11.5 feet, according to information from the United States Geological Survey.
The most current spring flood outlook report by NWS also lists Shell Creek and Logan Creek at a “much-above-normal” risk for flooding.
Pearson encouraged residents who live at vulnerable points along rivers to be prepared in case major flooding does occur in coming months.
“If you are in a vulnerable area—near the river not behind a levee—you are more vulnerable this year,” he said. “I mean don’t move your house—let’s not get crazy here—but take the steps you need to take.”
He said a few common steps to consider would be moving valuable items out of the path of potential flooding, potentially purchasing flood insurance if applicable, and even moving things from basements.
“If you are a person whose basement always floods in the spring time, maybe you should start thinking about moving stuff from the lower levels of your home,” he said. “Those things that you are used to happening are going to be worse this year.”
Dodge County will consider raising the hourly fee for court-appointed attorneys, officials confirmed to the Tribune this week.
Currently, Dodge County appoints private attorneys for individuals who cannot afford their own in court in order to fulfill the constitutional right to counsel.
Dodge County pays those attorneys a fee of $70 per hour for felony cases, and around $55 for misdemeanors, according to Dodge County District Court Judge Geoffrey Hall. The proposed change would increase the hourly rate to $95 in both felony and misdemeanor cases.
Such a decision would mirror many other northeast Nebraska counties who have already set their rates at $95, officials say.
In a Feb. 20 letter, Washington County District Court Judge John Samson informed the chairmen of both the Washington and Burt County boards that he would be increasing the hourly fee for court-appointed attorneys in those counties from $75 to $95, effective July 1.
“As you are aware, the county must provide legal representation for defendants who are indigent,” Samson wrote. “Several months ago, I was asked to consider increasing the hourly attorney fee rate for lawyers who are court-appointed. It was mentioned that the current hourly rate of $75.00 was not a reasonable hourly rate when considering overhead expenses incurred by attorneys.”
Samson listed nearly a dozen northeast Nebraska Counties who have already increased their fees to $95 per hour: Thurston, Dakota, Cedar, Wayne, Madison, Stanton, Cuming, Platte, Colfax, Butler and Saunders.
When the court-appointed attorney fees rise in Washington and Burt Counties, Dodge will be the only county in the sixth judicial district that still has a rate below $95, according to Hall.
Hall confirmed to the Tribune that he had forwarded Samson’s letter to the Dodge County Board of Supervisors, and notified the board that he would consider the fee raise as well, in order to keep all of the district’s counties uniform.
Nothing has been decided at this point, however: Hall said he hopes that he and County Court Judge Kenneth Vampola will meet with board representatives and the county attorney’s office to discuss the issue further.
“We intend to meet with the judges — the county attorney’s office, myself, the judges — and just kind of talk about what that looks like for us, just exactly all the protocols behind what [Samson’s] letter is indicating,” said Dodge County Board Chairman Bob Missel.
Missel added that the change would present a “significant” increase to Dodge County’s budget for court-appointed attorneys. Numbers provided by the Dodge County Clerk’s office show that those expenditures were already up in the last fiscal year.
Court-appointed attorney expenditures in Dodge County District Court were at a 30-year high in the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year at $205,139.96. The total amount spent on court-appointed attorneys between district, criminal county and juvenile court in the 2017 to 2018 fiscal year was $536,939.09, the most since the number hit a 30-year peak of nearly $700,000 in 2014.
Hall noted that the proposed change would apply only to District Court and County Court — Juvenile Court could see a change as well, he said, but it may be less than $95.
While raising attorney fees would increase spending further, it could be necessary to ensure that attorneys are fairly compensated for their work — and that the district’s counties can continue to attract quality attorneys for court-appointed work. At least, that was the impetus behind the decision in Washington and Burt Counties, Samson said.
“The problem we run into in rural counties, as you might imagine, if we’re not somewhat competitive with the attorney fees, it’s getting more and more difficult to find competent counsel to represent defendants,” Samson said. “So that’s the problem is that we were the last few counties to go to that, and some of them have been doing that for some time.”
Additionally, in speaking to attorneys who practice in Washington and Burt Counties, Samson learned that the wages had not kept up with attorneys’ expenses.
“Those rates have been around a while, and when the attorneys told me that, when you consider their overhead … they’re not making much money per hour, and that’s not fair either,” Samson said. “I know there are some attorneys that I talked to that are no longer doing court appointments because of the low hourly rate.”
The Tribune attempted to reach several attorneys who practice in Dodge County between Thursday and Friday, but did not hear back by press time.
Dodge County is unique from the other counties listed in Samson’s letter who have moved to a $95 fee rate because the county has a significantly higher caseload than most of them. In 2018 the county saw 891 cases filed in district court, according to data collected by the Nebraska Judicial Branch, by far the most in the sixth judicial district.
The Dodge County Board is also facing a tight budget — it raised property taxes in its last budget cycle after taking on debt for an $11 million project with Motorola Solutions to replace the county’s emergency radio system for first responders.
A change in the fee rate could prompt discussion among county officials about how they handle criminal and indigent defense.
Washington County Attorney Scott Vander Schaaf, for instance, told the Tribune that the Washington County Board of Supervisors is now discussing “alternatives” to the court-appointed attorney system. That could manifest in the county setting up a contract with an attorney, or several attorneys, that would represent certain court-appointed cases on a salaried or part-time basis.
And here in Dodge County, both Missel and Hall suggested that the prospect of a fee raise could potentially bring up the conversation about adopting a public defender — a salaried government official who provides defense counsel.
“it probably brings up the discussion once again about having a public defender,” Missel said.
It’s a conversation the county’s had before. In a 2006 Tribune article, for instance, board members discussed the potential of a public defender as court-appointed attorney fees were rising, but the idea was not pursued.
It’s unclear at this point exactly what that would look like, or how it could impact the county.
Missel stressed that any discussion about raising attorney fees is still preliminary at this point, and the next step for Dodge County is for officials to meet in order to discuss options.
“There’s not much to say other than it’s something we’re going to look into,” he said.