AS spring rain clouds start to gather over the American Midwest, somewhere in a St. Louis warehouse a million sandbags are waiting.
In cities in Iowa and Illinois, another 3 million sandbags have been warehoused.
``We've identified sources for an additional 25 million sandbags if we need them,'' says Scott Saunders, a spokesman for the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Washington.
During last summer's record-level flooding along the Mississippi, some 31 million sandbags were used quickly during massive efforts to hold back the river.
What's the flooding prognosis for homeowners and towns along the river this summer? Best advice: Renew your flood insurance policy first thing tomorrow morning, and know where the sandbags are stored.
James Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says conditions along the Mississippi River from Minnesota to Memphis have the potential for flooding again. ``Soil saturation is greater in most areas this year than last and exists over a larger area,'' he said.
With soggy soil, rain water will run off quickly, flowing into tributaries.
``We're preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,'' says Mr. Witt.
Ken Kunkle, director of the Midwestern Climate Center in Champaign, Ill., says, ``Minnesota has wet soils and above-average snowpack, and that's where the river starts.''
According to the North Central River Forecast Center in Minneapolis, many rivers are running high for this time of year.
Des Moines River high
The Des Moines River at Jackson, Minn., is 430 percent above its normal flow. And the Mississippi River, just above the Twin Cities, is flowing at 93 percent above normalcy.
Dean Braatz, hydrologist in charge at the center, says, ``The 30-day outlook says the weather will be a little warmer than normal and a little drier. That's ideal, and we're hoping the forecast stays good.''
Historically, flooding along the Mississippi basin has tended to occur in back-to-back years. ``When the grounds become so saturated,'' says Scott Faber, director of flood plains for American Rivers in Washington, ``there is a cycle of flooding. The Midwest is characterized by periods of drought followed by periods of flooding.''
Other factors that could contribute to flooding are the current levels in the reservoirs and dams along the river, the snowpack, and rainfall patterns.
``In the last six years,'' says Mr. Kunkle, ``we have experienced greater extremes during the summers, alternating between very severe droughts, and very wet years. In Illinois during this time, we had our second- and third-driest summer ever, and then our wettest summer, and that's out of 100 years of keeping records.''
Battered by the record flood of '93, and the drumbeat of previous floods, a record number of cities and counties have applied to FEMA for money to relocate sections of towns and hundreds of homes to higher ground. ``In most cases, the homes or structures will be demolished because there is not much left of them,'' says Larry Zinzinger, director of FEMA's relocation program.
FEMA has contributed almost $39 million out of a total of $65 million federal and state funds spent on relocations in seven states so far.
Many conservationists, meanwhile, continue to voice concerns over the condition of the river. Last week a study, ``Restoring the Big River,'' was released by the Izaak Walton League and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
The study concluded that the river has high levels of toxic pollutants, pesticides, and herbicides from runoffs and industrial discharges.
``There is pretty clear evidence that the quality of the river is continuing to decline,'' says Robbin Marks, a resources specialist for NRDC and co-author of the study. ``Even with some reductions in chemical releases by companies,'' she says, ``47 facilities (along the river) discharge more than a billion pounds of toxic chemicals into the environment, and 296 million pounds directly into the Mississippi or to sewage treatment plants.''
Louisiana is the No. 1 state in the nation for releasing toxic discharges into surface waters. In one stretch of the lower river, there are 350 industrial and municipal facilities, half of which discharge waste water into the river.
Many pollutants - including dioxins, PCBs, and insecticides, which have been banned for years - are still evident in aquatic life all along the river.
The report recommends establishing a Mississippi River Coordinating Council to consider the full range of river problems and to coordinate short- and long-term restoration and protection plans among the river's 10 main-stem states - those directly bordering the river.
``There has never been a collective effort to bring them all together,'' says Ms. Marks.
``It would be tough to do, but its been done in the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay,'' she adds.