The West weathers unusually wet times

  • Charles Lakovitch's home was burned to the ground

    Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette

With a huge snowpack in the high country threatening severe floods this spring, Westerners prepared for the worst. They beefed up dikes and levees and stockpiled sandbags in anticipation of the big melt (HCN, 5/22/97). But for most, the worst never came.

Roy Kaiser, a water supply specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman, Mont., says periodic cold snaps kept the snow from all melting at once. Also, because the snow was so deep this winter, it insulated the ground, keeping it from freezing; so when the high country melted off, the soil absorbed a lot of the runoff and tempered spring floods.

Kaiser adds that though the rivers were higher than last year, they did less damage. "We would have had a whole lot more wet people, had we not had a lot of early preparedness," he says.

Still, some areas got soaked. The mild spring made for a drawn-out flood season in northern Idaho and eastern Washington, where five counties were declared federal disaster areas. The St. Joe and Pend Oreille rivers were above flood stage for more than a month, according to Brian Avery, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Spokane (HCN, 5/12/97).

The Columbia River is still roaring, as snowmelt from Canada feeds its northern tributaries. "The salmon should appreciate it," says Chris Burke, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Seattle. Campers in Washington's Confluence State Park were not as appreciative, however, when the river rose two feet in less than an hour, sending them running for high ground.

It will be a few weeks before things dry out around the Tetons, where a mudslide closed Highway 89 between Alpine and Jackson, Wyo., for almost a month. At last report, road crews had opened one lane of the road - a major artery into Jackson for commuters and tourists.

West of the Tetons, the Blackfoot, Idaho, Morning News reported fish jumping in potato fields. The Snake River flooded 150 homes, 25,000 acres of farmland and a section of I-15 in June. Help from volunteers, church groups and the National Guard prevented even more damage, says Rick Just with the Blackfoot Emergency Operation Center. "We can't keep Band-Aids in stock, there are so many blisters on hands," he says.

Ironically, says Just, "One of our biggest problems up here is lack of water." Many irrigation canals in the Teton Valley washed out, leaving potatoes, wheat and hay dry.

High water doesn't always mean devastation, says John Gangemi of Whitefish, Mont., a biologist with the national boating group American Whitewater. Flooding plays a vital role in restoring river systems, he says, by recharging groundwater and creating habitat for insects, amphibians and fish. In Montana and the Dakotas, for example, floods have refilled potholes that serve as nesting grounds for ducks.

"Some of the richest soil we have in the world is deposited river sediments," adds Gangemi.

While much of the West enjoys dry weather for a change, the Southwest has been too dry, says Tom Zickus, with the National Weather Service in Phoenix. Small towns and stock ponds are already feeling the pinch of a second year of drought, he says, and cities will have to pump more water from the ground than in past years. "You're looking in the wrong state for floods," he says. "We're the antithesis of Idaho."

* Greg Hanscom, HCN assistant editor